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‘Moribund rail network'
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 02 - 08 - 2018

Ten train carriages travelling from Cairo to Aswan were derailed in the Upper Egyptian village of Kom Ombo on Sunday. According to the Health Ministry, six passengers were treated for minor injuries at Kom Ombo Central Hospital and were discharged the same day.
Later on Sunday, Minister of Transport Hisham Arafat appointed Ashraf Raslan as head of the Egyptian Railway Authority (ERA), replacing Sayed Salem. Salem, sacked in the immediate aftermath of the derailment, was appointed head of the ERA in August 2017 following a train crash in Alexandria that left 42 people dead.
Prosecutor-General Nabil Sadek assigned a team of Aswan prosecutors to investigate the scene of the accident. The minister of transport has also formed a technical committee to ascertain the reasons behind the accident.
Sunday's derailment occurred 20 days after three carriages heading from Cairo to Qena left the tracks in the village of Marazik, close to Badrashin station, injuring 61 people. In the wake of that accident Arafat referred 15 railway officials to the Administrative Prosecution for interrogation.
Experts say the entire railway network is moribund and in need of a radical upgrade.
“The railway network has suffered three decades of neglect,” says Hani Sobhi, professor of railway engineering at Ain Shams University. “Essential maintenance is routinely ignored and what training staff do receive is completely inadequate.”
According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), 13,539 train accidents occurred between 2004 and 2016. In 2017 alone, 1,793 accidents were reported on the railway network. Eighty per cent of the accidents in 2017 involved collisions at crossing points.
“The sector desperately needs upgrading. Modern electrical signals need to be installed and diesel engines replaced with electric ones,” says Osama Okail, professor of road and railway engineering at Ain Shams University. Problems, he says, have been compounded by massive underinvestment leaving the system “managed by ancient technology that has not been updated since it was first installed”.
Eighty-five per cent of the network still uses mechanical signalling systems and the signal system at crossings remains dependent on the telephone. Ninety per cent of engines run on diesel. According to a report issued by the ENR, there are 1,332 official crossing points on the rail network, supplemented by 2,006 unofficial crossings, made by citizens and beyond the control of the ENR. It is the latter that account for the majority of accidents.
Unofficial crossings are regularly closed only to be reopened in what has become a game of cat and mouse between the transport police and the public. The transport police lack the resources to monitor all 9,570 kilometres of the network and as far as unofficial crossings are concerned, in the absence of public cooperation they are fighting a losing battle.
Of the existing 1,332 crossing points only 170 have been installed with electric signals. Work is ongoing to develop 470 more. According to an ENR report, upgrading each crossing costs LE2 million.
Earlier this year Arafat announced a five-year overhaul programme, including the installation of a fully automated signalling system, costing LE55 billion.
In a speech to students and government officials at the National Youth Conference held this week at Cairo University President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said the government will not increase rail ticket prices until the whole railway system has been developed.
“I have rejected the minister of transport's request to raise the price of tickets,” Al-Sisi said on Sunday, the second day of the conference.
Egypt's railway network is the world's second oldest, with 9,570km of tracks running across the country. It transports 500 million passengers annually — an average of 1.4 million passengers per day — according to ENR figures.

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