End of the line: Egypt grapples with its crumbling rail system
End of the line: Egypt grapples with its crumbling rail system
Just before 11:30 a.m. on a hot spring day at the end of March (March 26), the 89 train service from Luxor to Alexandria stopped outside the city of Tahta, in Sohag governorate in Upper Egypt. It was an unexplained stop, but one familiar to regular users of Egypt’s national rail system.
The crowded train sat for fifteen minutes in the heat. Then at 11:42 a.m., another train, the 2011 service, collided at high speed behind its back. Seventy-two ambulances were dispatched; 19 people eventually died and 165 were injured. An investigation was announced, and the story made headlines around the world. On Twitter, President El Sisi wrote: “The pain in our hearts today will only increase our resolve to end this type of disaster.
ابعت الحادث الأليم الذي اهدناه اليوم بتصادم قطارين محافظة سوهاج.
الألم الذي يعتصر قلوبنا اليوم ، لن يزيدنا إلا إصرارا على إنهاء مثل هذا النمط من الكوارث
– Abdelfattah Elsisi (@AlsisiOfficial) March 26, 2021
Three weeks later, train 949 traveling from Cairo to Mansourah derailed outside Toukh, twenty miles north of Cairo, killing 23 people and injuring nearly 140.
Egypt’s rail network has been hampered by security concerns for a few years now. Since 2000, more than 700 people have died in train crashes in Egypt, including more than 380 in 2002, when a sleeper train caught fire outside Cario. While there has been a complex and ongoing blame game, little has been done to remedy the Egyptian giant of a rail network.
The oldest network in the Middle East
Egypt claims one of the oldest rail networks in the world; construction began in 1848 with concessions to the British. The original rail network from Cairo to Alexandria was designed by British engineer Robert Stevenson, with the first section completed in 1856, between Alexandria and Cairo. Under British and French control, the network expanded considerably in the second half of the 19th century, largely at the expense of Egypt, according to historian Hugh Hughs.
Today it is the largest rail network in the Middle East and Africa. While it plays an important role in freight transport, transporting more than six million tonnes of cargo each year, 90 percent of its work carries more than 1.4 million passengers each day in a rolling stock of 35,000 cars.
Although the network has not been extended since the occupation, it still serves as an economic and social lifeline that manages to reach a large part of the population. With tickets heavily subsidized by the government, it remains one of the most popular forms of transportation in the country. The Institute for Developing Economies in Japan described it as playing “an important role in the Egyptian economy”.
Yet since its inception, the railways have been a financial burden. The whole system was built on debt to European powers, and over a century and a half later the system remains in a financial “black hole”.
Structure and infrastructure in difficulty
In 2020, the Egyptian National Railways (ENR) owed more than EGP 250 billion, both to the Central Bank of Egypt and in government loans. It was only last year that the government got together to discuss a financial solution.
However, the adage “safety first” may precede the financial problems facing the organization. ENR has one of the worst safety records for a railway of its size: in 2019, Germany had the worst train accident rate in Europe with 298, according to Statistica. The year before, the last year we have records for, Egypt had 2,044.
As The Economist explains, the repeated occurrences of accidents are due to a combination of obsolete cars (the average age currently being 30), a lack of basic equipment training and, possibly most worrying, the rampant drug consumption among the railway workers. Many of the rails and signals in the network have also not been renewed for decades, making it unstable and dangerous.
The task of meeting these monumental challenges will likely require a combination of policy changes and significant investments. However, many other countries have decided that prioritizing a well-connected and well-maintained rail network has benefits that ultimately outweigh the initial costs.
Stronger rail systems generally help build strong economies. US President Joe Biden has made trains part of his infrastructure plan, and in the UK more than £ 100 billion is being spent on a controversial new high-speed rail link.
The road ahead
Egypt is seeking to expand its network with projects for the Vision 2030 Plan. In January 2021, the government signed a major $ 23 billion agreement with German manufacturer Siemens for a new high-speed power line between the north coast , the new capital and the east coast, stretching from El Alamein to Ain Sokhna, in a project that President El Sisi hailed as “an important addition to the country’s transport network in terms of trade and passenger transport.”
Construction is also underway on a light train connecting Cairo to the new capital and the city of October 6 after an agreement with China Railway Group Ltd in 2017. Yet these projects could be considered to be built by foreign companies for serving the rich and foreigners without addressing the major problems that the majority of the population face on a daily basis on the old crumbling system.
Yet in late spring 2021 it was announced that money was finally coming to help the pre-existing rail system as well. This money did not come from agreements with foreign companies but from loans from the African Development Bank and the Bank for Reconstruction and Development (which is part of the World Bank) for a total of 540 million dollars.
To put this in perspective, the UK spent $ 22.5 billion on its privatized rail network last year. Although the UK rail network is around three times the length of its Egyptian counterpart, there is still a significant disparity in overall spending. However, this money could still benefit the renovation of the old network.
Egypt also has an example of efficient public transport that lurks prominently in the very heart of the country: the Cairo metro. Built in the 1980s, the network has yet to experience a major accident, despite carrying nearly 1.3 billion passengers each year, the same standard as the much longer and longer London Underground system. old; and more than double the total number of passengers on the entire Egyptian rail system.
In Sohag Governorate, as the film crews move on to the next story and the dust settles after the March accident, citizens go about their daily business. While a commission was set up to find out what went wrong on March 26 and money was allocated to the families of the victims, people still wonder what really happened and why ; and wonder when the next fatal accident might occur.
Video of a man inside one of the crumpled cars circulated online after the Tahta crash and was picked up by CNN. “Where’s the help?” He shouts, “People are dying here.
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