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Disastrous track record
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 24 - 08 - 2006

Monday's train crash outside Qalyoub, which claimed the lives of 58 people, highlights safety concerns over Egypt's ailing rail network, reports Pierre Loza
When the 6:30 am train from Benha to Shoubra began to slow down just before Qalyoub station passengers thought it was a routine stop. A minute and a half later, though, and they began to panic. A Cairo-bound train from Mansoura was fast approaching, travelling at full speed.
The trains collided at 7:00 am, leaving 58 people dead and injuring an estimated 143. A crowd gathered from the residential area that surrounds the railroad and tried desperately to help survivors.
Mohamed Shaaban, a barber, lives in an apartment building close to where the collision took place.
"We woke up to the sound of the collision, it sounded like a bomb explosion," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Half an hour later, as ambulances began to arrive, Shaaban saw people still trapped inside the overturned carriages desperately trying to scramble out of windows.
Many of those unable to escape were caught in fires that erupted in the overturned carriages. Of the 58 bodies recovered 21 were unidentifiable.
Security personnel and disaster relief teams cordoned off the site where the three overturned carriages and the train engine appeared to have been ripped to shreds by the force of the impact, and struggled to cut through the metal so the trains could be removed from the tracks.
It is still unclear whether the Benha train was moving slowly or was at a complete standstill when the Mansoura train crashed head on into its rear. Islam El-Garawani, a block assistant at Qalyoub station, was among the first to hear of the collision.
"We were informed by the railroad's radio that train number 808 had crashed into the 344 train. I came running from my observation point to find families already throwing sheets and water bottles to victims and survivors."
Garawani said the scene resembled the site of a bomb blast, with corpses and scattered body parts dispersed among the twisted metal that was all that remained of the last three carriages of train 344.
"Rescue teams did not arrive quickly enough to save the assistant of the Mansoura train's assistant driver, who was calling for help from under the debris before the cars caught fire," said Garawani.
The crash is the worst accident on Egypt's railways since 2002, when a train caught fire killing more than 370. Following that disaster the government pledged itself to refurbishing the country's ailing rail network.
Investigations are still underway and it is not yet clear what led to the latest tragedy. Hanafi Abdel-Qawi, the head of the Railways Authority, questioned by the prosecutor general's office then promptly sacked, has been quoted as saying he believed the crash was due to human error and not technical problems.
"At this point, with an investigation underway, we don't know exactly why the tragedy occurred," said Abdallah Abdel-Aziz, head of the local city council.
In the meantime, Railway Authority assurances that all trains are equipped with speed controls and alert devices have met with widespread disbelief.
As part of the rescue effort rescue teams from the army and the Ministry of Interior demolished a three-metre stretch of wall surrounding the railway tracks to facilitate the rescue operation.
Senior officials, including the minister of transport, the public prosecutor and the governor of Qalyoubiya have already visited the site of the accident. Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, who visited survivors of the crash in hospital, said the government has earmarked LE8 billion to upgrade the railway system.
Families of the injured are resentful of officials who, they claim, have used the survivors of the crash as a photo opportunity. El-Said El-Uweidi, from Monoufiya, rushed to the Qalyoub general hospital to see his son-in-law as soon as he heard about the crash on a satellite channel. He was stopped from entering the hospital by security personnel.
"While the ministers were inside getting their pictures taken we were prevented from entering to find out if our relatives were alive," said Uweidi.
Minister of Social Security Ali Mesilhi has said families of the deceased will receive LE5,000 in compensation, and the injured LE1,000. The Minister of Investment Mahmoud Mohieddin announced that insurance packages, which vary according to the extent of injuries, will provide a further LE20,000 to the families of those killed.
Omar Abdel-Meguid was in the rear carriage of the Cairo-bound Benha train, and suffered back and arm injuries.
"People started calling out that the car was burning. I don't know how I was able to climb up and jump out the window while the car was on its side," he said.
Sobhi Zahran, from the village of Sheblanga in Qalyoubiya, was in the same carriage.
"The Mansoura train was late. The problem was that we were waiting in the central track. I don't know if this was the fault of the signal posts or the fault of the driver," he said. Zahran believes the accident could have been avoided were rural trains equipped with communication devices.
"Many second class rural trains leave the station without communication devices," said Zahran.
There have also been reports that the Mansoura driver did not respond to light signals warning him of the Benha train ahead of him.
Mohamed Helmy, a 25-year-old rowing team member, was in the penultimate carriage of the Benha train.
"We could see the train coming from behind and we were expecting it to stop, but it just got closer and people started screaming."
The rear carriage buckled up in the air, landing on the carriage in front and overturning it.
"I was in a state of shock. I heard someone saying the car was burning. I tried to climb out of a window and fell, then after a second attempt I made it out."
Helmy questions the official death toll. "I saw at least 100 people crushed to death. The person next to me saw bodies flying across the fence that encloses the railway tracks," he says.
While Helmy thinks medical staff might have rushed the stitches he needed in his face he believes it is a result of the pressure under which they were working. "I understand that they have many people to care for but they could at least have allowed me to leave and get the medical attention I needed elsewhere. But for some reason to do with compensation they wouldn't let people leave."
Helmy thinks the accident is one more manifestation of a deep-rooted neglect of the welfare of those on low incomes. "The people that use these kinds of trains are poor, and their reward for going out every morning to support their families is to be killed," he says.
"Do these accidents happen with first class air conditioned trains," he asks rhetorically.
"It is because we can only afford the cheapest trains that we get killed this way. I may have survived this time, but next time I may not be so lucky. Such is the destiny of people like me."


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