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Deadly collision
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 29 - 10 - 2009

Another disaster on the railways undermines official claims that the network is being overhauled, reports Reem Leila
Villagers who gathered to help pull the dead and injured from the wreckage of two trains that collided on Saturday between the villages of Kafr Ammar and Gerzah of Ayyat, 50km south of Cairo in the 6 October governorate, had no doubts about what had caused the accident. It was the result, they agreed, of negligence combined with corruption. Like a great many members of the public they see little hope that the situation will improve any time soon.
During Ramadan, TV viewers were showered with government commercials extolling the upgrading of Egypt's railway system, showing new locomotives and rolling stock, and praising the training schemes provided for personnel. Ask any regular train traveller, though, and you will be told the reality bears no relationship to the glossy PR. Indeed, as disaster seems to follow disaster on Egypt's transport network, and the casualties continue mounting, Ramadan's expensive advertising campaign seems less a matter of wishful thinking than a tasteless, sickening joke.
Saturday's accident, which left at least 18 people dead and 36 injured, happened when train 152, heading to Fayoum, was forced to stop after sustaining damage to its brakes when it hit a buffalo and dragged the animal for 800 metres. A second train, No 188, heading for Assiut, crashed into the stationary train, crushing the two rear carriages. Villagers joined with passing motorists to try and help, attempting to construct a temporary bridge with whatever materials were at hand across the canal running parallel with the railway tracks to allow easier access to the injured. Others removed their clothes and swam across the canal, pulling survivors from the wreckage.
Ambulance vehicles were at the scene within 20 minutes. Two hours after the crash Armed Forces bulldozers arrived and succeeded in filling in part of the canal, allowing the ambulances to cross to the other side. Civil defence teams, the police and military then worked throughout the night, searching for survivors amid the crushed carriages. Cranes were used to remove the twisted wreckage from the tracks and unblock the key rail route, allowing train services to resume the following day.
The injured were taken to a number of hospitals and the dead to Zeinhom morgue, leaving families to travel back and forth, between hospitals and morgue, in search of their relatives.
According to Health Minister Hatem El-Gabali, who was at the scene an hour after the crash took place, "nearly 80 ambulance cars from Giza, Cairo and Beni Sweif helped in transferring injured passengers to hospitals, including the Nasser Institute, Haram, Sheikh Zayed, Badrashin, and Wasta."
Officials were quick to announce details of compensation -- LE30,000 to the families of the dead and LE6,500 to those injured, according to 6 October Governor Fathi Saad.
Eyewitnesses describe how the first train made the unplanned stop after hitting an animal. "The train hit a buffalo. The air brakes seemed to malfunction and the train stalled. A second train came from behind and crashed into it. Passengers by the doors fell out of the carriages," said Mahmoud Othman.
Villagers who gathered at the scene cast doubt about the number of casualties included in official accounts.
"I removed around 50 corpses with my cousin," insists villager Abdel-Motaal El-Sayed, who adds that civil defence rescue teams appeared almost an hour and a half after the accident took place. "And then," says El-Sayed, "they had brought only cranes to lift up the wreckage and unblock the track."
Ibrahim Mohamed has no doubt where the real blame for the disaster lies. It is the fault of officials. "The government doesn't care about us. We are the poor, and as far as the regime is concerned we shouldn't exist. Accidents like this have happened repeatedly in recent years. Promises are made, some hapless workers are blamed and turned into scapegoats, and nothing changes. There is no political will to do anything as long as the victims are poor."
Even as the investigation into the accident continues events seem to be following the usually pattern, with more than one senior official happy to place all blame on the shoulders of the driver of the Assiut-bound train. Others have opted to blame a watch guard who, they say, left his post early. Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif has vowed that "those found to be responsible will be held accountable", while former transport minister Mohamed Mansour -- who tendered his resignation to President Hosni Mubarak on Tuesday -- has referred 34 railway employees to the prosecutor-general for investigation. They include the drivers of both trains.
"They are scapegoats. And whether it is human or technical error that is eventually found to blame, these are symptoms. The real cause is the overall state of the rail network and, the chronic problems it faces, from the condition of trains to the safety measures in place. All of these need to be addressed. The rail system needs a radical overhaul," says Hani Sobhi, professor of railway engineering at Ain Shams University. Not that he has much hope that "investigations will address the real reasons for the accident or condemn the real perpetrators".
"Unless the government treats the condition of the railways as a matter of national security and provides the necessary budget to upgrade them, to train drivers and other workers, more tragedies will continue to happen," he warns.
In July 2008, dozens were killed when a train crashed into vehicles at a level crossing north-west of Cairo. In May 2006, 45 people were injured when a cargo train slammed into a stationary passenger train near the Nile Delta village of Alshat in the governorate of Sharqiya. Three months earlier 20 people were injured when two trains travelling in the same direction collided near Alexandria. The second, faster train, ran into the back of the first. More than 50 died when two commuter trains collided near Cairo in August 2006. In February 2002, 360 passengers died when fire swept through a train heading to Upper Egypt in Egypt's worst ever rail disaster. The subsequent investigation found 11 low-ranking employees responsible though the case against them was subsequently dismissed in court. The presiding judge acquitted the defendants, noting as he did so that they were being used as scapegoats.


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