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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 March 2019

‘It’s like being in danger every day’: Cairo’s commuters travel with trepidation after train fire

The gross negligence behind the accident has left the capital’s residents fearful of more tragedies

Charred and perilously tilted, the train car engine behind Egypt’s latest railway disaster became something of a grim landmark on Thursday, with passengers at Cairo’s busy Ramses station pausing to capture the sight with their mobile phone cameras.

Passengers disembarking on adjacent platforms turned their heads to glance at it as they filed out of the station in the most congested pat of central Cairo. Many of those waiting for their rides out of the city appeared to eye with some trepidation trains pulling up at platforms, fearing a repeat of Wednesday’s accident when the engine car slammed against a platform barrier causing an explosion and a fire that killed at least 25 and injured more than 40.

“I now feel that my life is at risk here,” said Abou Ammar, a man in his early 30s who sells sodas and candy from a kiosk sitting a platform thats a mere stone’s throw away from platform six, the site of the accident. “Look at what it did,” he said, pointing to a building damaged by the blast and fire and the blackened ceiling above. “There used to be a kiosk there. Not anymore.”

“I travel every other day back to my home in Shebeen (a Nile Delta town north of Cairo), and I know what it’s like to travel on trains in Egypt. It’s like being in danger every day,” said Abou Ammar.

Perhaps testifying to the resilience of Cairo and its 20 million residents, life appeared to be back to normal at the Ramses station on Thursday, with hordes of passengers moving in and out of the facility. But the absurdly gross level of negligence behind Wednesday’s accident and the seemingly endless string of railway-linked tragedies befalling the country appear to have scarred the nation.

In a national conversation playing out on social media – Egypt’s chief platform for free speech – Egyptians spoke of the heartbreak over the unnecessary death of so many, questioned the government’s spending priorities and the more pessimistic wondered when the next tragedy will be.

The conversation was made the more mournful by the wide circulation of video clips showing the horrific aftermath of the blast and fire, with some showing passengers helplessly running back and forth while engulfed by flames and tales of unsung heroes who saved lives by using blankets or water to snuff out the flames of others.

Egypt’s chief prosecutor said in a statement late on Wednesday that the driver of the engine car disembarked from the vehicle to argue with the driver of a similar vehicle after their cars were entangled following a soft collision. He did not switch off the engine before he disembarked, so his car, loaded with fuel, broke free and sped to slam against the platform where dozens waited for their rides.

“I don’t understand why it moved, but these locomotives are old and they get no maintenance to speak of,” the driver Alaa Fathy, who has been detained, told a television interviewer. “If the car was in good shape, it would not have moved, but I made a mistake. There must have been something that I should have done.”

The accident, over which the transport minister resigned, has raised questions about the safety standards of Egypt’s antiquated railway network and whether the government should have invested more in overhauling the service, used by some 300 million Egyptians every year.

Train accidents are not uncommon in Egypt, but only major or deadly ones are publicised.

Official figures, for example, show that a total of 1,082 train accidents happened in the first half of 2018, a spike by 36.7 per cent over the same period the previous year. More than half of these accidents took place in the Nile Delta north of Cairo, the country’s busiest region in terms of railway links.

The outgoing minister, Hisham Arafat, has said that it costs 5 billion Egyptian pounds annually to run the service, while revenues stand at only 2 billion pounds. That huge deficit is primarily caused by state subsidies which keep the fares relatively cheap, and the network’s maintenance barely sufficient.

For example, a first-class seat on the fastest train from Cairo to Alexandria – a distance of about 200 kilometres that’s among the busiest routes – costs 100 Egyptian pounds (about $6), a fraction of the price in Europe but a large sum to most Egyptians.

“There is not a service in the entire world at these (low) prices,” President Abdel Fattah El Sisi once said about the cost of railway transport in Egypt. On other occasions, he spoke about the grave danger to the economy posed by state subsidies for services, declaring that no amount of investment would bring about enduring improvement if the subsidies remain in place.

Speaking the day after Egypt’s latest train accident in 2018 – a collision of two trains that left 15 people killed near Cairo – Mr Sisi said it would take about $14 billion to overhaul the service, an amount of money he said would be difficult to find and just as challenging to recoup if subsidies continue.

For now, the absence of a computerised signal system along with human error is harvesting lives at a time when most of Egypt’s 100 million people are struggling to make ends meet in the face of higher prices resulting from an ambitious economic reform programme engineered by Mr Sisi that included reduced subsidies on fuel, electricity and potable water.

But the problem with the Egyptian railways, first established in the 19th century, is not restricted to the lack of funds. It is equally in the culture of inefficiency, negligence and corruption that plague many state institutions.

“Once again, the problem is not in the person in charge, whether it is the prime minister, the transport minister or the chairman of the railway authority. The problem is in the system. We must try and identify the problem, not the person who caused it,” Emad Hussein, editor of Cairo’s independent daily Al Shorouk, wrote in the paper’s Thursday edition.

“The resignation of the transport minister was the right move, but it would not resolve the essential problems, which is a collapsing system.”

Updated: February 28, 2019 08:34 PM

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