Egypt’s old trains in need of facelift

Friday 07/08/2015
More than 5,000 kilometres of tracks.

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.