Egypt’s old trains in need of facelift
Cairo - When he got on the train a few months ago on the way from Cairo to his home village in the southern province of Asyut, Ahmed Abdel-Monem saw two hawkers fighting. A few seconds later, one of the hawkers stabbed the other to death.
However, Abdel-Monem, a civil servant in his early 40s, said this was not his most terrifying or disquieting experience on Egypt’s rickety and creaky trains, which he uses twice every week travelling to and from work in Cairo.
“Using the trains has always been an awful experience to me,” Abdel-Monem said. Egypt’s railway system, which recently entered its 165th year of operation, may be the oldest in Africa and the Arab region. But the country’s railway is a mere shadow in terms of reliable service of what the foreign engineers envisaged when British occupiers created it.
Egypt’s trains travel reach every corner of the country, with tracks extending about 5,000 kilometres. They cover the Nile Delta, the northern Mediterranean cities of Alexandria and Marsa Matrouh and Egypt’s southernmost provinces of Aswan and Luxor.
While the railway is huge in every sense of the word, it is also worn out, suffers from neglect and is a source of pain for the passengers, rather than a source of comfort.
About 1.4 million Egyptians use the trains every day to reach destinations hundreds of kilometres from home or work. But to reach their destinations, they have to deal with the realities of the train system.
Hawkers are common on the trains; toilets are rarely cleaned; chairs are broken and air-conditioners are not working at best, non-existent at worst.
“Our railway system lags far behind its peers in other countries,” leading transport expert Mustafa Sabry said. while the stations are not fit for human use.”
Egypt’s diesel-powered, state-run trains employ about 86,000 workers, mechanics, drivers, conductors, engineers and administrative staff. Poorly paid, these employees work to keep the service going but often their efforts fail to resuscitate a service older than some countries in the Middle East.
Inside the workshops of the Railway Authority — the government agency running the service — workers try to maintain the trains and replace worn-out parts. Poor maintenance has turned the trains into a source of death.
Train crashes are common in Egypt, claiming the lives of hundreds of people each year. In November 2012 a train rammed into a school bus 350 kilometres south of Cairo, killing at least 50 schoolchildren aged 4-6. In January 2013 a passenger train travelling to Cairo from the central province of Sohag derailed, killing 19 people.
“The human factor is a very important thing in managing this service,” Abdel Fattah Fekry, the head of the guild of the railway workers, said. “This is why we always strive to give training to the workers so that they can avoid making fatal mistakes.”
Nevertheless, most of the train accidents in Egypt were blamed on railway workers, with negligence on the part of train drivers said to be responsible for most of them.
Over the past three years, the revenues of the Railway Authority receded 25-28%, posing yet more challenges for railway planners.
Nagwa Albeir, spokeswoman for the Railway Authority, said current authority management inherited huge problems from its predecessors.
“There are endless technical and financial problems that beset this service,” Albeir said. “But this does not mean that we should ignore the good work done now to improve the service.”
That work includes modernisation of trains and stations. Authority workers are manufacturing train carriages designed to be more comfortable than current ones, according to Transport Minister Hani Dahi. Egypt also plans to import new trains from China and other countries. Nevertheless, Fekry, the head of the railway workers guild, says most of the work done to modernise the railways does not fit the history of the service.
“I really have hope that things will become better in the future,” Fekry said.