Egypt’s dilapidated railway network has once again been making headlines after last Friday’s tragic train collision in the Upper Egyptian Sohag governorate that led to the deaths of 18 people and the injury of 200 more.
Eleven different officials have been at the helm of the Ministry of Transport since 2011. The 11th and current transport minister, Kamel Al-Wazir, completed his second year in office in March, succeeding Hisham Arafat, who resigned following a deadly train crash in late February 2019 at Cairo’s Ramsis Railway Station that resulted in the deaths of 22 people.
During his two-year term, Arafat announced in 2018 a five-year overhaul programme to upgrade the railway network costing LE55 billion. Al-Wazir has extended the scheme until 2024 at a total cost of LE225 billion.
In his policy statement before parliament in January, Al-Wazir stated that 177 railway projects costing LE45 billion had already been implemented, adding that 52 projects at a total cost of LE43 billion were underway.
Until the government brings the overhaul of the railway system to an end, said Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli following the Sohag collision, regrettably similar accidents might occur.
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi ordered the speedy completion of modernising the railway system the day after the accident as the only way to end similar incidents, vowing that “deterrent punishments” would be used against whoever had caused the tragic accident, whether through negligence, corruption, or other reasons.
“The Sohag accident was almost expected to happen,” Al-Wazir said, “as in any country where the entire railway system is being upgraded, the entire system is brought to a halt. But in Egypt, the decision was to keep operations ongoing.”
The Sohag collision occurred last Friday when an Aswan-Cairo train crashed into the back of a standing Luxor-Alexandria train, resulting in the derailment of carriages from the latter and the former’s engine.
Al-Wazir said in a statement on Saturday that the cause of the Sohag incident would be exposed by investigations led by the prosecution-general. He said in TV statements later on the same day that all radio notifications and warnings prior to the collision had been recorded by the recently-modernised signalling tower in Tahta in Sohag.
“This is the benefit of the modernisation process,” Al-Wazir said.
Unlike the modern electronic signalling tower in Tahta, 85 per cent of the signalling system of Egypt’s railway network is still mechanical, according to the Egyptian National Railway (ENR).
“A comprehensive plan has been drawn up for the development of railways and to make a quantum leap in the level of service provided to passengers through the development of all the elements of the current system,” the minister said in January.
The ministry plan includes the development of the signalling and communication systems on the main railway lines, updating them with modern electronic systems and providing them with central control systems to prevent human errors, in addition to installing the latest global automatic control system (ETCSL1) to increase safety standards.
In the meantime, the minister noted, trains are equipped with an automatic train control (ATC) system that “can automatically slow down or even stop the train when facing an obstacle, when the lights are yellow or red, or when a crossing is open.”
Al-Wazir’s explanation led TV presenter Amr Adib to ask “why did the Sohag train then not stop?” The minister said the driver of the moving train “was deactivating the ATC when it collided with the standing one.”
“I don’t give him an excuse... but 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 speeds as the ATC system forces the train to slow down. The ATC can then be reactivated later after reaching developed areas,” the minister told Adib.
The move was to reduce journey times, as there had been public criticisms of deployments, Al-Wazir explained. The driver in the November accident, however, was imprisoned for his actions, leading other drivers to decide not to deactivate the ATC so as not to receive the same punishment, he added.
“From now on [following the Sohag tragedy], there will be an average of a 25 per cent delay in the journey time for each journey until June 2022 when the main railway lines are fully upgraded. This is because if we work in the same manner [intermittently disabling the ATC to reduce journey times], accidents could happen again,” Al-Wazir said.
UPGRADES: According to Hani Sobhi, a professor of railway engineering at Ain Shams University in Cairo, 90 per cent of train accidents are due to human error.
“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,” Sobhi, who has 50 years of academic and technical experience in railways, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
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.
The Transport Ministry’s plan to upgrade the network includes developing railway engines and carriages at a total cost of LE48.2 billion through various agreements.
One of the already-signed agreements is a 2019 $602 million deal with General Electric to supply 110 new engines in addition to providing maintenance for 15 years for a further 181, of which 100 have already been received and 15 have been rehabilitated.
The most-notable agreement for importing carriages is a 2018 deal with the Russian-Hungarian consortium Transmash Holding to import 1,300 railway coaches, of which more than 200 have already been delivered.
“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.
Mona Essam, whose Masters thesis was on railway accidents in Egypt, told the Weekly that given the existence of high-tech equipment, the repeated accidents could only be put down to the importance of the human factor.
“Not only is the training of railway employees important, but it is also crucial to supervise them as well,” Essam said, adding that while misuses are possible, improper maintenance also occurs.
She highlighted the importance of conducting awareness campaigns for passengers as well, because in many cases wrong behaviour inside and outside trains causes disasters.
Osama Okail, a professor of Road and Transportation Engineering at Ain Shams University in Cairo, said the development of the railway system that is taking place is good, but that there is a difference between development and modernisation.
“The network has long been in need of modernisation, which is more radical than development,” Okail said in a telephone interview with TV presenter Ibrahim Eissa.
Okail echoed Sobhi’s approach, saying that importing engines and coaches and upgrading the signalling system were important, but that they were not enough as the human element was responsible for their operation. Management was also an important element of the modernisation process, he added.
“Our problem lies in both the human factor and management. That is why we have found under successive governments, and despite spending large amounts on the sector, that there are still problems,” Okail said.
Until now, management in the Railway Authority is limited to the most senior employees, Okail said, which was why the head of stores or the head of maintenance could become the head of the authority.
“It is no longer acceptable for advanced transportation facilities to be managed by appointed employees in such a manner. Management means managing a facility with economic efficiency and the use of experts in all fields of economics and technology,” he added.
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.
Though the number of accidents annually is high, Okail said, almost all of them were minor with no casualties and represented an indicator of mismanagement or the poor condition of the railways.
Due to the frequent occurrence of train accidents, the ministry has been criticised for its plan to establish in parallel with upgrading the existing network a 250km per hour electric-train network with a total length of 1,795km and costing LE360 billion. Some would have preferred this financial allocation to be directed to the upgrading process.
Nevertheless, both experts welcomed the project, which will be implemented by the German company Siemens.
“The ‘old man’ [the traditional railway network] is no longer able to fulfil his obligations. There is no substitute for alternative, modern railway lines. The new electric train system will reduce the burden on the old lines and open the way for their development to make the ‘old man’ able once again to fulfil his obligations,” Sobhi said.
Okail believes that installing the new modern electric railway network is better than extending the old moribund one. “The important thing is to proceed with establishing the new network in parallel with the development of the old one,” Okail said.
Consisting of four lines, the Siemens train network is set to be built within two years. Its 460km first line, due to be completed in 2023 at a cost of LE100 billion, has 15 stations and will run from Ain Sokhna on the Red Sea to New Alamein City on the Mediterranean, passing through the New Administrative Capital and Borg Al-Arab city.
The second line will link the Red Sea’s main port with the port of Alexandria and the Matrouh Gargoub port. The third will connect Hurghada and Safaga on the Red Sea with Qena and Luxor. The last will link 6 October city with Luxor and Aswan.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly