After 373 people died in a train crash in Al-Ayyat in 2002 and again when 57 died in Qalyub in 2006, people demanded the overhaul of Egypt's crumbling railway system. The same calls have been made following the recent spate of train disasters in Assiut, Badrashin and elsewhere.
First, the blame focused on long years of neglect. After the Qalyub accident in 2006, the government said Transport Minister Mohamed Mansour had just taken charge and was not to blame what happened. The opposition strongly objected.
Second, the minister proposed a broad plan to overhaul the railways costing LE8 billion. The plan was very similar to what is timidly being proposed today: buying new engines, repairing old ones, updating railway crossings, allowing private sector investment. All of this, using the same sources of funds: primarily foreign loans from the World Bank.
Some have even suggested privatising the Railway Authority train by train to advertisers. The buying companies will become responsible for upgrading and maintaining them (except their trailers), and each train would be named after the company that owns its advertising rights. For example, instead of the Alexandria train or Upper Egypt train, they would become the Pepsi or Chipsy train, as a journalist proposed on state radio.
But is this not the same logic that failed in 2006? Not only in terms of developing the service and expanding it but even in preventing disasters that kill hundreds.
Railways, development and privatisation
The road on my way home from school in in Abshaway city of Fayoum governorate passed across a railway station, which some students used to travel from school to Abu Kasaa village. Throughout my childhood, crossing the platform of the station – which was probably built during the British occupation – was sheer joy. I would wave goodbye to my friends and look at the British-style building.
Some mischievous students would sprinkle itching powder, they might find in parked train, on their friends, making them scratch and fall down laughing. But as our last of secondary school year was winding down in 1989, the government and the governorate began executing a plan to close down the line that transported thousands every day to the capital of the governorate stopping by tens of villages.
Of course, this coincided with the licensing of a new fleet of microbus taxis owned by a single “private sector” figure. The issuance of new licences was then suspended for a considerable time.
The case of Fayoum was repeated elsewhere. The 10-year reform plans of Atef Ebeid and Mohamed Mansour between 2001 and 2010 reduced the number of trains by 17 per cent to 70,000. The number of passengers fell by one third during the same period while ticket prices climbed and several lines were shut down.
Meanwhile, the number of air-conditioned trains for the wealthy grew by 37 per cent, and the number of accidents in the world’s second oldest railways after the British hovered at around 1,000 annually between 2005 and 2011, according to official statistics.
Let us compare the retreat of an effective role for railways with what happened in China.
During the above-mentioned period, the Egyptian economy grew by 5 to 7 per cent per year but its railway system deteriorated. China, on the other hand, is planning to connect 40 new cities via a railway network that will quadruple in length by 2020. It is part of the Chinese government’s plan to stimulate domestic demand to counter the international financial crisis.
I visited the main railway station in Beijing in 2010, and found the level of service, cleanliness, efficiency and discipline of the railway to be better than in Europe. Moreover, Chinese companies manufacture the majority of the trains.
The difference between the effect of Chinese growth on the condition of its railways, and the effect of former PM Ahmed Nazif-style growth on Egypt’s railways, is precisely that approach of the Pepsi and Chipsy trains that kill development in favour of large companies by eliminating any benefits for the poorer classes.
The US Department of Commerce says every dollar invested in railways (tracks, cars, crossings, etc) has a $3 return for the US economy, and a 200 per cent return on investments. It also creates jobs, and expands small local investment opportunities by providing low-cost transportation (think of Upper Egypt, Sinai and the New Valley if they were connected to the national railway grid).
Railways are the least polluting form of transportation, but because of pressure from large automobile and airfreight companies, the US adopts a system where the role of railways is minimal.
Why? The nature of the sector does not comply to the kind of economic growth, led and harvested by the direct interests of large firms. The sector is capital intensive, requires heavy investment in construction and maintenance, and the cycle of capital is very slow.
In Egypt, the private sector is reluctant and risk averse to the extent that it leaves high profit investment opportunities in sugar industry or paper industry. The Egyptian private sector cannot enter the railway sector without the incubator of the state, expending, investing, and securing profits through raising service prices and repressing social protest. Job creation, development and the integration of communities are not really a priority on the agenda of the private sector.
Mansour’s plan for overhauling the railway system failed and his same plan will fail again under the Muslim Brotherhood government (even without corruption, as they claim), specifically because it adopts ideas that lead to Pepsi and Chipsy trains. Any genuine reform of the railway system would not be detached from a vision for economic development and social equality.
The World Bank blog: “safe, clean and cheap transportation for development” tells us about the experience of Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro issuing a unified transportation ticket that connects the city and its suburbs. This experiment began in 2010 as part of a process to improve transportation inside the crowded city, where 46 per cent of the poor commute from outside the city to work. The project enables the poor to use and change transportation until they reach their destination using one ticket that costs no more than $2. This cut cost by half and helped increase the number of trips and passengers within two years to 585 million trips used by half a million passengers every day.
The World Bank reported that the ticket, which was accompanied by government investment in infrastructure, increased jobs and reduced the cost of transportation. It also gave the poor access to new jobs. It simply pushed for social inclusion rather than social exclusion.
In short, the efficiency, development benefits and chances of success of a railway system are related to equality, development and social justice. Developing the railway system is a tool for achieving this.
“We were packed on top of each other and the soldiers were beating us,” said a tanned young man with a slight moustache, who arrived from Assiut on the train that crashed at Badrashin.
Another, who looked similar to him and spoke with the same accent, but with bandages on his head, added: “They treat us as if we are slaves doing forced labour.”
Eyewitness added, “The ambulances came half an hour late and the government came much later.” “Mohamed Morsi rides in an air-conditioned train but these are soldiers. No, we are human beings.” “The most important thing is the rights of the men who died.”
It is impossible to separate notions of dignity, freedom, the right to life, health, education, employment, equality in the eyes of the state, ending police abuses and overhauling the railway system. The road remains ahead: bread, freedom, social justice.
This article was published in El-Shorouk newspaper on Monday 21 January 2013