Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 October 2019

Repairing Egypt's decaying railways will save lives

Regardless of the cause of the Cairo train crash, poorly maintained infrastructure worsened the tragedy

Security forces and onlookers gather at the scene of a train crash at a Cairo railway station. Khaled Desouki / AFP 
Security forces and onlookers gather at the scene of a train crash at a Cairo railway station. Khaled Desouki / AFP 

In 1851, when Egypt’s Abbas I commissioned the British engineer Robert Stephenson to build the first railway in the Middle East and North Africa, he was determined that his country’s transport infrastructure would match the best in the world. Today, although more vital than ever to the nation’s economy, Egypt’s poorly maintained and badly managed railway network is among the world’s most dangerous. A driver’s negligence may have caused yesterday’s incident at Cairo’s Ramses station, in which 25 people died and dozens more were injured by a runaway locomotive. However, the emergence of CCTV footage showing the moment of impact and its grim aftermath has reawakened fury at the corruption and underfunding that many believe is responsible for the increasing number of accidents on Egypt’s railways. The video circulating on social media, showing running passengers engulfed in flames and brave railway workers risking their own lives to save them, is truly shocking. But these images do more than any number of dry statistics to bring home the harsh realities of Egypt's decaying infrastructure.

The resignation of the transport minister within hours of the crash – a rare acceptance of personal ministerial responsibility – is a sure sign that, regardless of what brought this latest disaster to pass, the government is aware that some blame will be laid at its door. The number of accidents on the country’s railway system is increasing every year, rising steadily from 489 in 2011 to 1,793 in 2017. Many have been caused by failing infrastructure. Fatalities are common. More than 40 people lost their lives in a crash in Alexandria in 2017, and 50 died in Cairo the year before. In 2002 hundreds perished in a gas explosion on board a packed train travelling from the capital to Luxor.

In 2017, President Abdul Fattah El Sisi caused outrage by questioning the value of the government spending money on Egypt’s decrepit railways when it could earn interest by keeping the money in a bank. Last year – the day after another crash, in which 15 people died – he insisted that Egypt lacked the funds needed to upgrade its railways. Yesterday, the president vowed to take action, but focusing on the actions of an errant driver alone will be a distraction from the greater, underlying problem.

There is grim symbolism in the site of this latest disaster. Built in 1856 at the end of the nation’s first line between Alexandria and Cairo, Ramses station is an iconic reminder of a nation’s once grand past. For the sake of the 430 million passengers who use Egypt’s railways every year, to say nothing of its own credibility, the Egyptian government must now act swiftly to restore the country’s rail network, and the quality of its management, to its former glory. If it does not, more lives will surely be lost.

Updated: February 28, 2019 06:39 PM

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