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