Mohamed Ramadan watched from his small office as the out of control locomotive sped past him on platform four of Cairo’s Ramses train station just after 9:30 a.m. on Feb. 27. In the seconds before it smashed into the end barrier of the station and burst into flames, he yelled out to bystanders warning them to get out of the way.
“It was coming so quick before it hit the stop and then exploded, taking everything in its way,” Ramadan told Al-Monitor. He said he ran in the direction of the explosion almost immediately, to those who had caught fire.
“I saw an elderly man who was on fire and I was able to help him put out the flames,” Ramadan noted. “But then I came across a girl in her 20s who was on fire and we tried to put a blanket on her. I don’t know if she survived.”
At least 22 people died and over 40 were injured, many critically, in the explosion and ensuing fire after a single train carriage crashed into the station, according to Minister of Health Hala Zayed.
A video posted online from CCTV footage shows the moment the train barges at an estimated 60 kilometers (37 miles) per hour into the end barrier of the station, bursting into flames after its fuel tank exploded, engulfing bystanders immediately.
Another graphic video posted online from CCTV footage showed a person on fire running around, to find a way to put the flames out, unsuccessfully.
The New York Times reported Feb. 27 that one woman asked a man to kill her because her whole body had been burnt.
Ahmed Galal, another witness who spoke to Al-Monitor, said that he was having breakfast in the cafe he works in at the station when he heard the loud explosion. “I went to look out the window and I could see a big fire and people running away,” he said. “I ran downstairs to give a fire extinguisher to a man and I could see about 20 bodies on the ground.”
He added, “One young girl was lying on the ground crying and she told me she was looking for her aunt. I don’t know if she found her.”
Within hours of the incident, Transport Minister Hisham Arafat had resigned.
Prosecutor General Nabil Sadek said investigators had determined that the locomotive’s conductor had left the car to fight with another conductor whose railcar was blocking his own.
Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly, who visited the scene soon after the crash, said, "Any person found to be negligent will be held accountable and it will be severe.”
Six people, including the train conductor, were arrested on Feb. 28.
Al-Monitor asked the manager of Ramses station, Mostafa Mahran, for a comment on the incident, but he said he was not authorized to speak to the media, citing a heavy security presence.
Egypt’s train safety record is poor. According to Egypt’s state statistics agency CAPMAS, there were 10,965 railroad accidents between 2008 and 2017.
A year ago, on Feb. 28, two trains collided to the north of Cairo in the Nile Delta region killing 12 people. In August 2017, over 40 people were killed and nearly 180 injured when two trains collided in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria.
Anger quickly grew in Egypt, including on social media platforms, where many users questioned why such an accident could occur at the country’s busiest transport hub in rush hour, especially after other recent deadly incidents.
Shortly after the crash, various hashtags were trending on Twitter with users expressing outrage at the government’s perceived neglect of the public infrastructure and broader discontent at the political and social situation in Egypt.
One Twitter user wrote, “Accidents such as yesterday’s hint to state failure.”
Others on Twitter also expressed outrage at what they see as the state’s misdirected priorities.
Last year, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi talked about the need to modernize Egypt’s railway system to prevent such accidents from occurring. He said 200 billion Egyptian pounds (about $11 billion) was needed to overhaul the network.
In March 2018, Egypt’s parliament approved a law to allow private sector participation in the railway sector development. It came just as then-Transport Minister Arafat said there would be a marked improvement in Egypt’s railway system by mid-2019.
But many are critical of the state’s approach and believe that improvements to the public infrastructure are being overlooked in favor of glossy new mega-projects, such as the current construction of a new capital to the east of Cairo in the desert.
Nancy Okail, executive director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, said in an email to Al-Monitor that the Egyptian state should be prioritizing more urgent needs over mega-projects. “There has been an unnecessary pressure to speed up construction in mega-projects, which has put a high strain on the budget as it costs much more to conduct them,” she said.
Okail argued that there has not been enough focus on human capital, saying, “What [Egypt] really needs is investments in human capital employed in terms of training, regular inspections for license renewals and an enforcement of an accountability system that is not even in place."
The full political fallout from the accident is yet to be seen.
But even in Egypt’s usually uncritical parliament, a group of dissenting representatives known as the 25-30 bloc offered tough criticism in a statement posted on Facebook. “It is understood that a minister resigned, but the responsibility of this passes to all officials who did not care about the real needs of the people,” the statement read.
Amro Ali, a lecturer in sociology at the American University of Cairo, told Al-Monitor that there is nothing new about the talk to improve infrastructure in Egypt. “But people just shrug their shoulders with any talk about mega-projects,” he said. “People are exhausted, they want to see real change, physical changes, where infrastructure is visibly improved.”