Egyptian National Railways (ENR) head Ashraf Raslan said on Sunday Egypt was expecting a new delivery of train carriages this week from Transmash Holding (TMH), Russia’s largest locomotive and rolling stock manufacturer.
“Thirteen aerodynamically ventilated third-class coaches will arrive this week, and a further 22 carriages are expected before the end of the month [August],” Raslan said.
This month’s batch follows two earlier deliveries in June and July from the Russian manufacturer. Other carriages are scheduled to arrive, in batches of 35 carriages, according to a timetable agreed as part of Euro 1.16 billion deal, the largest in the history of Egyptian railways.
The deal, for 1,300 new carriages to be supplied over five years, was signed in 2018. It includes 500 aerodynamically ventilated third-class coaches and 800 air-conditioned ones, 500 of which will be used for third-class journeys, the first time air-conditioned carriages have carried third class passengers in Egypt. The remaining air-conditioned coaches are divided into 180 for luxury second-class travel, 90 for luxury first-class travel and 30 dining cars.
Minister of Transport Kamel Al-Wazir says the new coaches will contribute to raising the efficiency of daily operations and achieve a huge leap in the level of services provided to passengers. But not without cost. Al-Wazir decided late last month to raise the prices of some long-distance journeys by up to 40 per cent.
“Railway running costs are more than LE7 billion annually while revenues are LE3 billion,” Al-Wazir said last month. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has already discussed with Al-Wazir possible solutions to settle the ENR’s debts which, according to a presidential statement, have reached LE250 billion. LE100 billion is owed to the Central Bank, and LE150 billion of the debt is accounted for by loans from the state budget to cover the cost of projects currently being implemented by the ministry, according to a statement by Presidency Spokesperson Bassam Radi in May.
Earlier this month, during the inauguration of Adly Mansour Metro Station, President Al-Sisi promised that train fares would not increase without a commensurate improvement in the service.
Egypt’s railway network is among the world’s oldest, with 9,570km of tracks running across the country. It transports an average of 1.4 million passengers each day, according to the ENR.
The Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) said in June that though the number of train accidents had fallen in 2019 compared to the previous 12 months, their severity had increased. While there were 1863 accidents in 2019 compared to 2044 accidents the previous year, in 2019 there were 42.4 deaths per 100 injuries compared with 34.3 deaths in 2018.
The great majority of train accidents – 88.1 per cent according to CAPMAS – happened at crossings. Following a deadly train collision in Beheira governorate in 2018 that left 12 dead and tens injured, the then minister of transport Hisham Arafat said that “98 per cent of train accidents in the last 30 years have been caused by the outdated signalling system.”
“The real problem is not the engines or carriages but signals and infrastructure. Eighty-five per cent of the signalling system is vulnerable to human error.”
According to ENR’s official website the percentage has not changed: 85 per cent of the network still uses mechanical signalling systems.
Since 2010, with the assistance of the World Bank the Egypt National Railways Restructuring Project has been working with the government to improve the reliability, efficiency and safety of the railways, and to modernise the management and operating practices of the sector. The project was initially scheduled to end in 2015 but was extended till 2020. And still a great deal needs to be done.
Ossama Okail, professor of road and railway engineering at Ain Shams University, says the entire domestic railway network is moribund and needs to be “radically upgraded”.
“Signals at crossings still depend on the telephone. The sector is long overdue an overhaul. Modern electrical signals need to be put in place,” says Okail.
On 30 June the Official Gazette published a decree by the prime minister establishing a joint stock company for metro lines and rail transport management, operation and maintenance. The Ministry of Finance, the New Urban Communities Authority, the National Investment Bank and the National Authority for Tunnels will together establish the company.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.