In a stormy plenary meeting on Sunday, MPs said the deadly train crash near Tahta city in the governorate of Sohag on 26 March that killed 19 people should ring alarm bells about Egypt’s railway system.
MPs agreed that the crash, which also left 185 injured, showed that the railway system was in pressing need for reform and modern safety measures. “This crash is not the first and will not be the last,” said MP Mustafa Salem, adding that Minister of Transport Kamel Al-Wazir should present MPs with a detailed plan including passenger safety measures, automatic train control, railway personnel training and improving performance.
Deputy Speaker Mohamed Abul-Enein said the lesson drawn from the Sohag train crash is that Egypt’s railway system is in serious need of professional management. “The current management failed to stem the tide of train accidents and so we should seek a new professional administration that can control the system’s technical aspects, achieve discipline and improve performance,” Abul-Enein said.
Alaa Abed, head of the parliament’s Transport Committee, said the committee will hold hearings on the deadly train accident. “These sessions will not conflict with the prosecutor-general’s probe because they will focus on existing conditions of the railway system and suggest solutions,” said Abed, indicating that “as Article 9 of the House’s internal bylaws gives the House speaker the authority to invite a certain committee to hold urgent meetings on an important subject, I ask that the Transport Committee meet to discuss the deadly Sohag train accident.”
The prosecutor-general said on Monday that eight people had been arrested over the collision of the two trains near Sohag on Friday. These include the drivers of the two trains, their two assistants, the supervisor of traffic signals in Al-Maragha city’s railway station, the head of the central traffic control room in Assiut and two other supervisors.
House Speaker Hanafi Gebali told MPs that the House will invoke its supervisory powers only after the prosecution-general declare the results of its investigation into the train collision.
“In the meantime, however, the Transport Committee will bear the responsibility of following up the developments of the accident and taking note of the result of the investigation being conducted by the prosecution-general in this respect,” Gebali said.
Abed said a sub-committee was formed immediately following the accident to gather information and prepare a detailed report.
“The sub-committee was also part of a parliamentary delegation, including the House’s Deputy Speaker Mohamed Abul-Enein and the leader of the parliamentary majority Ashraf Rashad, which met with Sohag’s governor and visited those injured in the crash in hospitals,” Abed said.
Abed, however, stopped short of holding Al-Wazir politically responsible for the accident.
He said in a TV interview on Friday evening that a move against Al-Wazir requires proof that he committed gross negligence and that he was mainly and directly responsible for the accident.
Abed offered his thanks to President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi “because he issued directives to the government to offer all forms of support to the victims of the accident and their families.
“The government also did well in the area of providing the utmost medical care to the injured and I can say that, in general, the government managed the crisis well,” he said.
Other MPs, however, insisted that there should be political accountability for those who might have a hand in the accident.
MP Mustafa Salem deplored that Al-Wazir was not summoned to parliament to address MPs on the accident.
Tarek Radwan, head of parliament’s Human Rights Committee and a Sohag governorate MP, said “nobody is above political accountability, and the House and its concerned committees should be informed of the development of the prosecution’s inquiry into the accident.
“I hope that accountability will not be confined to a low-level employee or the train driver, but we should go after the real culprits who caused this accident,” Radwan said.
MP Mahmoud Badr also called for adopting a hard line with the National Railway Authority (NRA).
“As many as 11 transport ministers have previously resigned because of their political responsibility for past train accidents, and what we see now is that no one has resigned, including the chairman of NRA,” he said.
Abdel-Moneim Imam, the parliamentary spokesperson of Al-Adl (Justice) Party, asked that a parliamentary fact-finding commission be formed to investigate the financial and technical situation of the NRA.
“This commission should include the Transport Committee and the Budget Committee to review the budget of the railway sector and how it is used to improve performance,” Imam said.
Joining forces, MP Amr Darwish also called for forming a fact-finding commission to be entrusted with reviewing the financial feasibility of the railway sector’s projects, identifying officials politically responsible for the accident, and following the progress of the prosecution-general’s probe.
In a statement on Saturday, Minister Al-Wazir apologised for the Sohag train accident. “On behalf of myself and all the staff at Egypt’s Railway Authority, I apologise for the Upper Egypt train collision,” Al-Wazir said, adding that the government had allocated LE225 billion to upgrade Egypt’s Railway Authority “and we are trying to use this amount to meet the operational needs [as well as] upgrade the system at the same time.
“Please be patient until we complete the upgrading and renovation works and until we finish our job.”
In a tweet on Friday, President Al-Sisi vowed “deterrent punishment” for the culprits of Sohag’s deadly train collision, stressing his determination to end a “pattern of such disasters”.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly