Egypt’s railways turn out to be a gate to death

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The Egyptian Ministry of Health announced the death of 32 citizens and the injury of 66 others in a train collision Friday in Sohag Governorate, southern Egypt. The record of the Egyptian Railways Authority is full of dozens of accidents over the past years, which have resulted in hundreds of deaths and injuries. Perhaps the most prominent of these accidents occurred 19 years and nearly a month ago, specifically on February 20, 2002, 70 kilomeres south of Cairo, when 350 people were killed and 90 injured, according to official data.

A fire broke out in train cars heading to Upper Egypt, carrying hundreds of Egyptians returning to their southern cities and villages to spend the Eid Al-Adha holiday before the train continued on its way for about nine kilometres despite the fire. At that time, the driver did not hear the passengers’ screams, as the calls were mixed with the sounds of friction between the wheels and the bars.

In a tragic scene, some jumped from the moving train to save their lives. Others were not able to do that. Their bodies burned, leaving nothing but ashes. Due to its tragic circumstances and the enormous number of its victims, this accident was considered the worst in Egyptian history. After the accident and for nearly 20 years, the casualties did not stop, so the Egyptians dubbed trains the “railways of death.”

The government recently announced that it would take measures to solve these problems, however, this did not happen. On Friday, Egyptians woke up to news of a collision of two new trains south of the country. It resulted in dozens of deaths and injuries in an incident that the preliminary investigations considered to be the result of “unidentified sabotage.” The railways in Egypt have a long history, as work began on its construction in 1834. The first locomotive in the country was operated in 1854. Thus, Cairo became the first in Africa and the Middle East to have railways and the second in the world after London. Currently, the Ministry of Transport owns 9,570 kilometres of railways, and the number of stations there is 705.

Over the past 25 years, Egyptians have suffered from train accidents that caused hundreds of victims, and the largest share of them occurred during the era of ousted President Hosni Mubarak. In 1995, within the capital, Cairo, 75 passengers were killed, and hundreds were injured due to a train collision with the rear of another train. Two years later, a similar accident occurred in Alexandria, killing 50 passengers and injuring more than 80 others. In 2006, two trains collided on the Mansoura-Cairo railway, and the accident left 80 people dead and about 200 injured. In the following year, two trains repeatedly collided in northern Cairo, killing about 60 Egyptians. In 2009, two trains collided on the Cairo-Assiut railway, killing 30 people and wounding others.

In 2012, a school bus collided with a passenger train in Assiut Governorate, resulting in the death of 44 pupils in the kindergarten and primary stages. In the following year, an accident occurred on a train carrying recruits from the Central Security Forces, which resulted in the death of 17 recruits and the injury of more than 100. In 2017, two passenger trains collided in Alexandria, killing 41 passengers and wounding more than 120. February 2019 witnessed a terrible accident. A massive fire broke out at the central train station in Cairo after a train collided with a concrete barrier, killing 22 people and burning dozens more.

According to an official statistic prepared by the Railways Authority, the number of train accidents in Egypt was estimated at 12,236 between 2006 and 2016. The most significant number of accidents occurred in 2009, while 2012 witnessed the fewest. In mid-2020, the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics issued a detailed report on train accidents in 2019. It mentioned that there were about 1,863 accidents, compared to 2,044 accidents in 2018, a decrease of 8.9 per cent. In 2018, the World Bank said that Egypt needs to spend about $10 billion on railroad repairs between 2019 and 2029. However, about a year before this report, specifically on May 14, 2017, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi refused a request from the Minister of Transport to spend EGP 10 billion ($57 million) on developing the railway sector.

Al-Sisi said in a press conference, one day after the accident of two trains in Khorshid, Alexandria, (49 deaths and the injury of more than 140), “The 10 billion Egyptian pounds, if I put them in the bank, I would receive 10 per cent interest on them, meaning one billion per year, and with interest these days, I will take two billion.” However, in the face of these successive disasters, the government announced a plan that includes a pathway to develop the Railway Authority’s infrastructure at the level of stations, signaling systems, transfers, and the establishment of electronic crossings. Last January, Al-Sisi renewed his rhetoric about the government’s keenness to develop the railway sector, stressing that the entire train fleet will be renewed by the end of this year. “Hold me to account in December 2021 to raise the efficiency of the railways and stations.” However, it seems that the government efforts in the railway sector are not enough. In a hearing of the Minister of Transport, Kamel Al-Wazir, last January, Parliament Representative Reham Abdelnabi directed a request to pay attention to the quality of services inside the trains and pay attention to the facilities and modernise tractors.

Controversy also erupted on social media about the authority announced regarding establishing a high-speed electric train. It is scheduled to take place in four stages of a length of 1,000 kilometres, at the cost of $23 billion, with the first phase to be completed in 2023. With the government announcement of the project and its high cost, voices opposed to it were raised. They were shocked by the official investment in a high-cost project, at a time when more important sectors such as health and education suffer from neglect, without any action on the part of state institutions.