After Alexandria crash, Egypt’s railways badly in need of repairs

Jam-packed. People on an overcrowded train in Cairo, on August 12. (Reuters)

2017/08/20 Issue: 120 Page: 18

The Arab Weekly
Amr Emam

Cairo - A collision between two trains near the northern coastal city of Alexandria that killed more than 40 people is indicative of the disrepair of Egypt’s rail network, transport experts said.

“The railways have been suffering neglect for almost 50 years and they need to be totally overhauled,” said Mustafa Sabri, a professor of trans­portation planning and traffic engi­neering at Ain Shams University. “If this is not done soon, there will be more victims every day.”

The August 11 collision occurred near Khorshid station, east of Alex­andria, between a train travelling from Cairo and a stationary Port Said train. At least 43 people were killed and 120 others injured. It was the highest death toll in a train acci­dent in Egypt in more than a decade.

Initial investigations attributed the collision to human error and the Cairo train driver was detained. Egyptian Transportation Minis­ter Hesham Arafat, however, said Egypt’s lack of an automated rail­way system was also at fault.

Egypt’s railways opened in 1854 and were the first in Africa and the Middle East. A lack of development has left Egypt with one of the most dangerous railway networks in the region.

In November 2012, a speeding train hit a bus carrying pre-school children about 370km south of Cairo, killing 50 of the 60 children on the bus. Two months later, 29 people were killed and 230 others injured when a passenger train de­railed and crashed into a cargo train in Giza. In January 2016, seven pas­sengers were killed and dozens in­jured when a train rammed into a truck in Giza.

Data from the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics indicated that there were 13,539 train accidents from 2004-16, mak­ing Egypt’s railways among the most unsafe in the region.

“The newest railway signals, for example, are more than 20 years old,” said Sameh al-Sayegh, a member of parliament’s Transport Committee. “The same applies to everything from the rails, to the trains, the brakes and the locomo­tives. Railway workers and drivers also rarely receive training.”

With 75,000 workers, the Egyp­tian Railway Authority has been running at a financial loss for dec­ades. State figures indicate that the Railway Authority generates $111 million a year but spends $277 mil­lion to operate its network.

Railway Authority chief Medhat Shousha resigned after the Alexan­dria crash and the Egyptian Minis­try of Transport pledged to under­go a major overhaul of the railway network.

To upgrade its system, Egypt needs to upgrade its more than 5,000 km of rails, buy or manufac­ture thousands of train carriages and buy or manufacture thousands of engines. It also needs to im­prove training for drivers and rail­way workers, install better fencing along railway tracks and install an automation system to enhance safety.

The plan could cost $6.6 billion, a figure that Cairo would strug­gle to meet given the state of the economy.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in May alluded to the need to raise train fares to finance up­grades to the railway system but, given the state of the network and rising safety fears, few Egyptians expressed a willingness to pay higher fares.

Experts said Egypt could be obliged to partly privatise the rail­way sector to obtain sufficient funds to modernise the system.

“The government cannot do this job alone because upgrading the system needs amounts of money it does not have, at least now,” said Hassan Mahdy, a professor of high­way and traffic engineering at Ain Shams University. “It must start doing this today before tomorrow, otherwise trains will continue to kill people every day.”

Amr Emam is a Cairo-based journalist. He has contributed to the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and the UN news site IRIN.

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