Egypt needs to automate railway network to prevent accidents, minister says

'Humans control almost 90% of the operations of the trains. This is something that is found nowhere else in the world.' Egyptian Transport Minister Hesham Arafat

Opportunities and challenges. Egyptian Minister of Transport Hesham Arafat. (Saeed Shahat)

2017/08/20 Issue: 120 Page: 18

The Arab Weekly
Hassan Abdel Zaher

Egypt must revamp its railway network to avoid further loss of life, Egyptian Minister of Transport Hesham Arafat said.

Arafat said Egypt’s railway network must increase reliance on modern technology and reduce dependence on human-operated systems and dated equipment. Most railway opera­tions in Egypt — from train drivers to signal control — are solely human operated.

“Humans control almost 90% of the operations of the trains,” Arafat said. “This is something that is found nowhere else in the world.”

Although an initial investiga­tion into the August 11 train collision in Alexandria, in which at least 43 people died, indicated that it may have occurred due to a railway signal fault, human error has been a major contributing factor in train collisions in Egypt, the government said. Moves to automate Egypt’s railway network system, the oldest in Africa and the second oldest in the world, have stalled because of financial pressures.

Arafat confirmed that the Egyptian Ministry of Transporta­tion is to spend $500 million over the next few years to replace thousands of manual railway signals with automated ones.

“This will reduce the likelihood of accidents induced by human faults,” said Arafat, who was appointed Transportation Minister in February.

Arafat has also said that he intends to greatly reduce the number of trains running on Egypt’s 5,000km of tracks, at least during the next six months until a modern railway signal system can be put in place.

“My ministry will implement a project that will introduce a new system to enable trains to operate and stop automatically at times of emergency,” he added.

The new emergency stop system, Arafat said, would serve as an important redundancy safety system, particularly in cases in which train drivers fail to react to emergency issues.

“This system will make the trains stop whenever there is a problem, even without action by the drivers,” Arafat said.

Egypt’s Transportation Minis­try has many other projects involving the railway system. However, a full-overhaul would require $6.6 billion, Arafat said, which is not realistic given the economic situation in Egypt.

Arafat suggested it could be possible to invite the private sector to contribute to the modernisation of Egypt’s railway network, although this would end Egypt’s state monopoly of the railways.

He said Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has given the go-ahead for the plan, after expressing discontent about the condition of the national railway system in May. However, a detailed plan on how partial privatisation would work has yet to be submitted to parliament, which would need to vote on the issue.

Many Egyptians expressed concern about the move, particu­larly the prospect of an increase in railway fares. An estimated 1.4 million Egyptians use the railways every day.

“Most of those who use the trains are poor civil servants, poor labourers and school and university students travelling from their hometowns to their work or their classes in other cities,” said Sameh el-Sayegh, a member of parliament’s Trans­port Committee. “To avoid causing problems to these people, the Transport Ministry should better exploit its resources to make the upgrade.”

Arafat confirmed that the Transport Ministry would look to monetise its operations as much as possible to pay for the mod­ernisation.

“This includes better exploiting the many plots of land owned by the ministry to bring in revenues and even inviting media agencies to use space at train stations for commercial purposes, something that will also bring in revenues,” he added.

“We, at the Transport Ministry, will leave no stone unturned to save the lives of Egyptian citizens. We cannot stand idly by while people die every day on the train.”

Hassan Abdel Zaher is a Cairo-based contributor to The Arab Weekly.

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