Egypt's trains are a death trap. But how did we get here?

A derailed passenger train is seen leaving 8 dead, 100 injured in incident in city of Qalyubia, Egypt [Getty]
8 min read
21 May, 2021
With systemic failings and neglect at the heart of a recent derailing of a train in Egypt that tragically left 32 dead and more than 100 injured, The New Arab finds out why Egypt's railways are in such dire condition, and which parties are at fault.

For millions of Egyptians, a train is a key means of travelling across the country on a day-to-day basis. However, with a long history of deadly railroad accidents, which has tremendously escalated in recent times and amid an absence of efficient legal or political accountability, what should be a safe and easy commute is turning into a matter of life or death for many. 

Official numbers estimate that about 500 million passengers ride trains each year, while almost five tons of goods are transported annually. Currently, Egypt’s railway service includes 3,500 passenger trucks, while railroads in the country extend to reach 9,570 kilometres across 705 train stations run by about 54,000 workers and employees.

The railway service was initially introduced to Egypt in 1851 during the reign of Khedive Abbas I. It was the first in the region, and the second in the world after the United Kingdom. Indeed, it is believed that much of the sector’s infrastructure is owed to that era.

The railway service was initially introduced to Egypt in 1851 during the reign of Khedive Abbas I. It was the first in the region, and the second in the world after the United Kingdom

However, in recent years, the Egyptian railway network has become known for having a poor safety record. In April alone, Egypt witnessed three catastrophic accidents in several parts of the country, killing and injuring dozens of passengers.

Anger rising

Whenever a train accident took place, social media users and anti-regime activists were quick to post online footage dating back to May 2017 when Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi bluntly said he would not consider upgrading the sector that had, by then, been in decline for decades.

“Instead of investing [for example] 10 billion in upgrading railways, I’d rather deposit this money in a bank and get an interest of one billion [a year],” he said, during a televised public event, while also calling for an increase in the price of train tickets.

“If you say I’m poor and I can’t pay [for the ticket], I will tell you I’m poor too,” Sisi added.

The sector underwent financial losses, owing $3.5 billion to the state, at a time when its total income amounted to almost $190.9 million, while it had spent about $219.5 million

Three months after the president’s remarks, a horrendous train collision took place near the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, leaving over 40 dead and more than 130 others injured, many seriously, which further stirred public outcry.

Hassan Abdel-Zaher, a professor of road engineering at Ain Shams University in Egypt, was quoted by Al-Monitor, a Washington-based news website focusing on the Middle East, as saying that Egypt’s railways have suffered negligence over the past 40 years.

In 2014, according to Abdel-Zaher, the sector underwent financial losses, owing 55 billion EGP ($3.5 billion USD) to the state, at a time when its total income amounted to three billion EGP (almost $190.9 million USD), while it had spent about 3.45 billion EGP (219.5 million USD).

A major problem, Abdel-Zaher added, is that railways are being developed while still operational.

But being “poor” did not discourage Sisi’s government in January this year from spending about $23 billion USD on a high-speed electric train, expected to be used mostly by the rich, given its location and facilities.

People watch as a telescopic railway crane lifts an overturned passenger carriage at the scene of a railway accident in Toukh [Getty]
People watch as a telescopic railway crane lifts an overturned passenger carriage at the scene of a railway accident in Toukh [Getty]

The electric rail line of the new train will run from the Red Sea resort of Ain Sokhna to New Alamein – lying on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea – and pass through the New Administrative Capital east of Cairo.

The deal with the German Siemens company – which will carry out the project – raised widespread debate in Egypt with many questioning the regime’s priorities and others hailing the government for offering citizens luxurious services.

The government ultimately started a plan to upgrade the safety of the sector in March this year with the help of loans from the World Bank. 

“People’s safety has always been the least of the government’s priorities,” an activist told The New Arab on condition of anonymity.

“Instead of making use of the country’s resources, Sisi resorts to getting more loans without any clear action plan of how to cover them. It seems that my children, my grandchildren and their grandchildren will be the ones paying dearly for these debts,” he added.

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Blaming scapegoats and bogeymen

The recurrence of railway tragedies led many Egyptians to blame Transport Minister Kamel El-Wazir for the deteriorating conditions of the sector in Egypt, calling on him to step down.

Nevertheless, Wazir – a former high-ranking military officer who led the Engineering Authority of the Armed Forces before becoming a minister – refused to resign.

Following a fatal accident in the Sohag province in southern Egypt in late March, Wazir described himself, as “a soldier” who would never “escape the battlefield” or else he would be “betraying his homeland” during an interview with Egyptian talk show host Amr Adeeb.

“I wouldn’t let down my president [Sisi] who hired me. I will keep fighting and resisting with [the help of] my colleagues at the railway authority… in order to serve my country,” El-Wazir told Adeeb on a live show broadcast on Saudi-funded MBC Misr satellite TV channel, cynically saying he would not drive the trains himself in order to ensure safety. 

Social media users were quick to slam Wazir after he also admitted that he had ordered a partial suspension of a vital safety tool, the automatic train control (ATC), in certain spots of the rail network to avoid delays of trains. He further confessed that the ATC was switched off by the drivers of the two trains that collided in Sohag, resulting in the death of at least 20 people.

Wazir was named as a minister in March 2019 after his predecessor Hisham Arafat resigned in a bid to save face, following a horrific fire that erupted in Egypt’s main Ramsis train station in Cairo and claimed the lives of more than 25 people.   

About three weeks after Wazir’s interview with Adeeb, another fatal incident erupted, leaving 11 people dead and 98 others injured, mostly with serious fractures and wounds, when a train derailed in the city of Toukh in the Qalyubia province, north of Cairo. This prompted people again to ask for the minister’s removal. 

Due to increasing public pressure, the government eventually sacked railway authority chief Ashraf Raslan, two days following the Toukh accident. However, many argue he was a scapegoat. Nine other senior staffers were also fired in the process.

When contacted by The New Arab, Raslan declined to comment on his dismissal.

“What is done is done and cannot be undone,” he said.

But it seems that in an attempt to appease the angry public, the government sought excuses that may be seen as illogical.

On April 26, Wazir read a statement before the House of Representatives (the lower-house of the parliament), accusing a number of railway employees in “sensitive posts” of  being affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood – which has been legally designated a terrorist group in Egypt since 2014 – and thus deliberately sabotaging the sector. But Wazir did not clarify what he meant by “sensitive posts”.

During the hearing session, MP Mostafa Bakry – a supporter of Sisi’s regime and the regimes preceding it – distributed a list among his colleagues  that included dozens of names of workers, drivers and employees who were allegedly Brotherhood affiliates. Bakry claimed he got the list from the state security agency that had investigated these names.                      

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However, it remained unclear why the alleged extremists have not been detained so far, though local and international human rights groups have estimated that Sisi had already put about 60,000 of his critics, including Brotherhood members and anti-regime activists, behind bars since 2013 and the following years.

Wazir called on the parliament to enact a legislation that allows for immediately firing public employees proven to be members of extremist groups, saboteurs and drug addicts.

Mostafa Gawish, the former deputy health minister during the reign of late Brotherhood-affiliated president Mohamed Morsi, tweeted: “The question was when would the minister resign… [instead]… Wazir appeared before the parliament, saying the Brotherhood was behind the Sohag [incident].”

“MPs applauded and started tailoring a law that allows for sacking Brotherhood members from public posts as per the [authorities’] definition of any unwanted citizens,” Gawish added in his tweet.

On May 6, Wazir fired another scapegoat, Sami Abdel-Fattah, the deputy railway authority chief for allegedly being affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood and, ironically, for criticising the El-Ekhetyar 2 TV series on social media, which is broadcast during the holy month of Ramadan, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed reported.

The TV show glorifies the Egyptian police and depicts the joint army-police break-up of the open-sit-in of pro-Morsi regime, dubbed by activists and foreign media the Rabaa massacre, as a righteous act carried out by the authorities.   

Brotherhood member Gamal Sultan tweeted in response to the decision: “General Kamel El-Wazir fired the deputy chief of the railway authority, accusing him of being affiliated to the [group] and, of course, holding him accountable for the accidents that took place, one of [many other Brotherhood members]…. as he needs more excuses for future accidents!”

Human rights defender Sherif Azer could not agree more.

“It is illegal and unconstitutional to discriminate against someone or any segment with the absence of a crime,” Azer told The New Arab.

“For example, if a person commits a specific misdeed, that person should be held accountable and punished accordingly… not based on his ideology or opinion,” he added.

Railway workers, meanwhile, declined to comment on the recent developments.

“We were instructed by the railway authority officials not to talk to the press,” a senior member of the train drivers union told The New Arab on condition of anonymity.

Horriya Marzouk is a pseudonym. The author resides in a jurisdiction where the publication of their identity may create a security or freedom of movement issue