Egypt's prosecution probe shows negligence involved in Sohag's deadly train collision

Ahmed Morsy , Sunday 11 Apr 2021

The Spanish train's driver and assistant were not inside the driving cabin at the moment of the crash, the prosecution says

People inspect the damage after two trains collided near the city of Sohag, Egypt, March 26, 2021. REUTERS

Egypt's Public Prosecution said Sunday its ongoing investigations into last month's deadly train collision in the country's south revealed human error and negligence of railway employees were involved.

On 26 March, a Spanish train crashed into the back of a standing one in the southern province of Sohag, leaving 20 people dead and 199 others wounded, and resulting in losses which have been estimated at more than EGP 25 million.

In a statement, the prosecution said the Spanish train's driver and assistant were not inside the driving cabin at the moment of the crash, and that the head of a central control department, which is responsible for monitoring the movement of trains at the collision site, was not present at his workplace.

A drug test for a signaling tower employee and the assistant driver of the standing train has shown their abuse of narcotic substances, the statement said.

The prosecution added the driver and assistant of the standing train claimed the train was halted after one of the danger brakes in one railcar was activated.

However, witnesses from the wounded, passengers, and workers as well as security personnel on board the train testified that they had not seen any of the danger brake activated, the prosecution noted.

The prosecution also said that both trains had their automatic train control (ATC) systems deactivated. 

Two drivers have argued the ATC activation prolongs the journey time, with one of them claiming that the railways authority has earlier issued verbal instructions not to activate this device, it added.

In televised statements on 27 March, Transport Minister Kamel El-Wazir stated that he himself verbally ordered some train drivers to deactivate the ATC in some areas and later activate it.

"Prior to a minor train accident last November, I told the most experienced drivers, who are usually assigned to routes in Upper Egypt, that they can deactivate the ATC in areas of maintenance or slow speed as the ATC system forces the train to slow down. The ATC can then be reactivated later after reaching developed areas,” the minister said.

The move was to reduce the journey times, as there had been public outcry on train delays, El-Wazir explained. The driver in the November accident, however, was imprisoned for his actions, leading other drivers to decide not to deactivate the ATC to avoid the same punishment, he added.

The prosecution stated in Sunday's statement that railways officials have confirmed that the ATC systems are not usually stopped in the area of the accident.

It indicated that in addition to the absence of the head of Assiut's monitoring-specialised Central Control Department from his work place, the investigations with two observers in same department showed "a breach of their duties".

One of them was late to alert the Spanish train's driver of having a standing train on its way, and when he eventually did so, he mentioned the standing train's number in a mistaken way. The other observer has claimed he made two telephone call to alert the Spanish train, and by checking the telecommunications company, the prosecution has found out that he hasn't made such calls.

Moreover, the prosecution added, while listening to the wireless recordings of the  second observer, it turned out that firstly there had been also a delay from his part to alert the Spanish train, and secondly there was continuation of alert attempts even after the occurrence of the accident.

Egypt’s railway sector, the second-oldest in the world with 9,570km of track running across the country and transporting around 500 million passengers annually, needs to be radically upgraded, according to experts.

Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) has indicated that while the number of train accidents in 2010 was 1,057, this had increased to 1,863 in 2019.

 “The accidents are usually expected, as we focus on upgrading equipment and machines, while the majority of accidents result from the human factor. If the development does not involve the human factor, whether drivers, employees, or even administration, it will leave the job only half done,” Hani Sobhi, a professor of railway engineering at Ain Shams University in Cairo, told Ahram Online.

Sobhi, who has 50 years of academic and technical experience in railways, stated that 90 per cent of train accidents are due to human error.

“What is the benefit of owning modern equipment, when it is misused or deactivated? It is necessary for the workers to be better trained,” Sobhi commented.

Until the government brings the overhaul of the railway system to an end, said Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly following the Sohag collision, regrettably similar accidents might occur.

The transport ministry's plane to fully upgrade the railway network is scheduled to continue till 2024 at a total cost of EGP 225 billion, according to El-Wazir.

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