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Can the private sector salvage Egypt’s dilapidated railway system?

While a train accident in Egypt’s Giza governorate has placed the railway system's efficiency in the spotlight, experts remain optimistic about the government’s modernization plan.

CAIRO — After three train cars flipped over July 13 near Al-Badrashin train station in Cairo’s Giza governorate and injured more than 55 people, the efficiency of Egypt's railway system has been once again placed under the spotlight.

The Al-Badrashin incident is not the first of its kind this year in Egypt. On Feb. 28, two trains collided in Beheira governorate in northern Egypt, killing 12 people and wounding 39. On Aug. 11, 2017, two trains collided in Alexandria governorate, also in the north of Egypt, killing 49 people and injuring 179.

The Egyptian railway system is the oldest in Africa. It was established in the 1850s and includes 705 stations, 1,330 level crossings, 35,000 cars for the transport of passengers, 10,000 cars for the transport of goods and 800 locomotives.

While this system transports 500 million passengers and 6 million tons of goods per year, according to data from the State Information Service, it suffers from several problems as its infrastructure has been depleted and its locomotives worn out. Also, its signaling system, train tracks and level crossings need modernization, according to a report published by al-Watan website on Dec. 1.

Minister of Transport and Communications Hisham Arafat said in a press release April 9 that there is a comprehensive government plan to modernize the railway system infrastructure, cars, locomotives, level crossings and stations at a total cost of 55 billion Egyptian pounds ($3 billion).

The plan that Arafat referred to was approved on Aug. 25, 2017, and in order to implement it, the government has been taking out loans and establishing partnerships with the private sector.

On May 9, the Cabinet approved a loan of 8 million euros ($9.3 million) with a repayment period of 15 years for the rehabilitation of railroad tracks and the import of four machines from Austria to aid in the completion of the tracks’ modernization process.

On March 4, parliament approved a draft law submitted by the government to amend some provisions of Law No. 152 of 1980 establishing the National Railway Authority of Egypt. The amendments stipulated that the private sector is allowed to take part in the management, operation and maintenance of the railway networks across the nation in cooperation with the National Railway Authority of Egypt all the while modernizing and strengthening these networks across the republic.

Arafat said Egypt contracted with General Electric in June 2017 for the supply of 100 new locomotives and the rehabilitation of 81 existing ones. This, he added, will lead to a great improvement that will be felt in 2019.

Hisham Abdul Wahed, the head of parliament’s Transport and Communications Committee, told Al-Monitor that Egypt’s railway system suffers from a number of intertwined problems, including dilapidated infrastructure, an old electronic signaling system and worn-out locomotives and cars. Also, he said, the railway system staff needs training.

Abdul Wahed added that funding is the most important factor in the modernization process. The March 4 draft law, he said, allows the private sector, be it Egyptian or foreign, to be involved in the operation, management and maintenance processes away from the privatization of the system. Consequently, he added, this sector is bound to witness new modernization measures.

The committee head said the panel met with the minister of transport July 10 and discussed the problems plaguing the railway system. In 2019, Abdul Wahed added, passengers will be witnessing progress as the government embarks on putting the final touches on the first stage of its railway modernization plan.

Abdel Fattah Fekri, the head of the Railway Workers Syndicate, told Al-Monitor that the railway system employs around 75,000 workers.

Emad Nabil, a professor of road engineering at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor over the phone that the government's plan to modernize the railway sector lacks funding, and this is a problem that will be solved through the involvement of the private sector in the modernization of this sector and rehabilitation of the railway infrastructure.

Nabil pointed out that priority must be given to areas where train accidents are recurrent, namely Al-Badrashin and Al-Ayat, and this requires specialized studies that go beyond examining accident causes at their time of occurrence. While the government’s plan is to be completed by 2022, this plan, he said, must work on a first-things-first basis.

Assistant Minister of Transport and Communications Amr Shaat told the “Ala Mas’ouliyati” program (“On My Own Accord”) aired on Sada Al Balad TV on July 14 that the railway network is very old and far from the progress that has been achieved in the field of railways across the world. He said the rail modernization system primarily relies on two axes, namely time and funding.

Shaat added, “The signaling system needs to be modernized along the 5,000-kilometer [3,100-mile] railway network, and a consultant has already been hired to identify the areas that must be given priority. In 2014, several companies were contracted in order to automate the signaling system in 20% of the railway system covering a surface of 1,000 kilometers [621 miles]. This plan is scheduled to be completed in 2020 at a cost of 17 billion Egyptian pounds ($950 million) that have been secured by foreign loans.”

While the prices of train tickets in Egypt vary according to the departure and arrival points, they also depend on the efficiency of the train cars and range from 5 ($0.28) to 195 Egyptian pounds ($10.90). The National Railway Authority announced Jan. 16 the completion of a study to increase these prices. These increases, however, have yet to be applied.

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