Egypt Pulse

Deadly crash sparks calls for railway reform in Egypt

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Article Summary
After a train crash earlier this month left over 40 Egyptians dead, many are calling for a new approach to addressing the chronic problems facing the country's rail system.

CAIRO — In Egypt's deadliest rail accident in years, 42 people were killed and 123 were injured when two trains collided near the Khorshid train station east of Alexandria, according to a statement by the Ministry of Health Aug. 11.

The initial reports suggested that the crash occurred because of a signal fault, causing the train traveling from Cairo to crash into the back of another that stopped suddenly, resulting in several train cars being crushed. However, the Egyptian Railway Authority (ERA) blamed both trains' conductors for the crash.

The authorities started an inquiry into the crash and arrested the conductors of both trains and their assistants for 15 days. The Public Prosecution ordered urine samples for drug testing from the train conductor who crashed into the other one. Public Prosecutor Nabil Sadiq ordered that the black boxes of the trains be recovered and for an investigative committee to look into the accident.

The ministry of transportation announced Aug. 13 the resignation of Maj. Gen. Medhat Shousha as head of the ERA. The post was handed over to Sayed Salem, who used to serve as deputy chairman for the ERA's Safety and Quality Department.

On the same day of the accident, Deputy Minister of Finance Mohamed Meit said in a press statement that the ERA needs massive resources for reform, noting that developing the railways exceeds the state's budget.

Millions of Egyptians use the railway network every year, which is considered the main link between the various parts of the country. The railway is seen as safer and cheaper than other means of transportation in Egypt, especially since car accidents on desert roads and highways occur almost every day.

The creaking passenger train network has been plagued by poor maintenance and neglect for a long time, which has been the main reason for deadly train crashes. In 2012, 52 students were killed and 13 others injured when a train crashed into a school bus in Asyut.

According to official statistics by the ERA and the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, the years between 2006 and 2016 witnessed 12,236 train accidents.

Many Egyptians who have lost loved ones in train accidents blame the state for failing to deal with the chronic railway problem and lack of maintenance. Suleiman Hassan, who lost several of his cousins in the recent train crash, told Al-Monitor, "The government's negligence is what caused the accident."

"Both my uncles lost their families in the crash. The first lost his wife and three children and the second his two kids," Hassan told Al-Monitor.

Many Egyptians who have lost loved ones in train accidents blame the state for failing to deal with the chronic railway problem and lack of maintenance. 

However, Amr Abdel Salam, assistant to the minister of transportation, told Al-Monitor that the government has already launched some plans to start improving railway infrastructure. The development project, scheduled to be implemented between 2017 and 2020, is estimated to cost 45 billion pounds ($2.53 billion).

"The development projects include renewing railways, developing and converting the manual signals into electric ones, procurement of new train cars, spare parts and the development of some stations. Foreign companies will also handle the maintenance and the workshops of the ERA," Abdel Salam said.

Imad Nabil, an expert and consultant on railways in Egypt, told Al-Monitor that the train network has not undergone any radical development operations since the 1980s.

"All the previous attempts to develop the railways were short-term palliatives, without any significant efforts for comprehensive maintenance works. This is due to the poor state management and difficulties in obtain funding. The railway sector is one of the most expensive sectors in the country. It could cost $1 million to develop one single line in the train network, which is a lot for a country plagued with economic crises," Nabil told Al-Monitor.

He added, "Egypt could cooperate with foreign companies from countries such as Germany, France and the US for the development of railways. We need unconventional ideas to stop relying on the state's budget. The government could enter into a development contract with foreign companies, as was the case with the French company that was awarded the subway project in Egypt in the 1980s. With this solution, such companies could operate and benefit from the railways for the duration of the contract, lasting from five to 15 years, and then the government takes over.

"Borrowing is not the best option now for these development projects. The government could make use of the large state-owned areas to establish investment projects or can lease out the train stations. All of these could be a solution instead of raising the price of the train ticket."

In July 2015, the government increased the cost of train tickets by 20 pounds ($1.12) for first class and 10 pounds ($0.56) for second class. Egyptians fear another rise in ticket prices after an increase in petroleum and fuel prices in June.

Ibrahim Mabrouk, a professor of transport engineering at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, seconded Nabil's proposals.

"Egypt's railway network stretches over 9,200 kilometers [5,716 miles]. Why is the ERA not benefiting from these areas to start investment projects, such as malls? The revenue could be used for development and maintenance," Mabrouk told Al-Monitor.

He added that "the railways' system should be automated, with less reliance on the human factor, which could help reduce the frequency of train accidents."

Minister of Transportation Hisham Arafat said in televised statements Aug. 13 that it is of paramount importance to strengthen the role of the private sector to improve the railway network. Arafat said that the state's budget is not enough for completing these projects but the contribution of the private sector does not mean privatizing the state-owned sector.

Mabrouk said, "In Japan, 12 railway stations are run by the private sector. Egypt could do the same to enhance the railway sector and to establish new lines."

Egypt's railways are one of the oldest in the world. The first line was established in 1851, connecting Cairo to Alexandria. British engineer Robert Stephenson oversaw the project back then.

In an attempt to bolster development, the Egyptian government signed a 15-year agreement June 17 with the American giant, General Electric, for $575 million. The deal includes the supply of new car trains and maintenance.

Egyptians hope these measures and deals will reduce the recurring incidents that often leave hundreds of victims every time they occur.

Fatma Lotfi is an Egyptian journalist and translator based in Cairo with an interest in political, economic and humanitarian issues. She writes and translates for local media outlets such as Zahma.com and is part of the Egypt Media Development Program.

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