x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Second rail tragedy hits Egyptian village

Repairs begin after two passenger trains collide south of Cairo shortly after the first hit a water buffalo that wandered onto the tracks.

The carcass of the water buffalo that caused Saturday's collision lies near the track in Al Ayyat.
The carcass of the water buffalo that caused Saturday's collision lies near the track in Al Ayyat.

Guerzah, Egypt // Railroad workers were completing track repairs yesterday around the site of a train crash that killed as many as 18 people on Saturday evening, according to Egypt's health ministry. The accident is the latest in a string of tragedies to beset Egypt's rail service - the Middle East's largest - and the second deadly train disaster for the small farming district of Al Ayyat, where more than 360 people died when a passenger train caught fire in 2002.

This time, it seems, the surrounding residents were prepared. Police and locals reported an extraordinary effort on the part of villagers from nearby farming hamlets who, within minutes of the accident, had built two makeshift bridges over a canal that runs parallel to the railroad tracks to access the accident site. "Rural Egyptians are really the best," said one plainclothes police officer, who would not give his name because he is not authorised to speak to the media. "It's the nature of Egyptian, of Oriental people, to band together and help each other in a time of crisis."

The two south-bound passenger trains collided about 50km south of Cairo shortly after the leading train hit a water buffalo that had wandered onto the tracks. The second vehicle rammed into the rear of the stalled train, overturning cars in both trains and injuring as many as 50 passengers, according to Agence France-Presse. Safety redundancies built into the railroad traffic system should have prevented such an accident, according to railroad and police officials at the scene yesterday afternoon.

The problem was one of simple human negligence, they said. Every several kilometres of Egyptian railroad track has a semaphore - an electric train signal that alerts railroad conductors to changes in the track ahead. Last night, the signals operator at a semaphore near the site of the accident decided to take an early break from his shift, which would have ended at 6.30pm. The operator left his post unmanned at about 6pm to catch a ride on the first of the two ill-fated passenger trains, according to a police officer named Ihab, who was at the scene of the crash yesterday but who did not give his family name.

When the first train hit the water buffalo, witnesses apparently told police, the semaphore operator and the train conductor were both seen trying to remove the buffalo's corpse from the tracks together. But without the benefit of a semaphore signal to alert oncoming trains that an engine had stalled on the tracks, the second engine proceeded in ignorance - and at full speed - until it slammed into the first train.

The semaphore operator died in the collision, said Ihab, who added that the man's fate was clearly a "punishment from God". While the story is nearly impossible to verify, Egypt's ministry of transportation has convened a committee to investigate the circumstances of the accident and determine how such tragedies can be avoided in the future. But for the residents of Al Ayyat, such promises are just a little bit of history repeating. "After the train accident several years ago, they said they would improve the service, but nothing happened," said Hamada Azouz of the 2006 crash that killed 58 people in Upper Egypt and prompted the ministry of interior to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on railway safety improvements. Mr Azouz said he arrived at the scene last night shortly after the accident and stayed until 2.30 in the morning. "The people of the villages helped more than the government. They carried the injured on their shoulders."

Mr Azouz, 18, pointed to two makeshift bridges that villagers from Kafr Al Guerzah built over a narow irrigation canal to allow them access to the wreckage and the injured inside. The first "bridge", which was still intact yesterday afternoon, was made from palm fronds and grasses that locals hurriedly used to jam the canal. But within minutes, witnesses reported, woodworkers from Kafr Al Guerzah had built a sturdier - though still rickety - bridge from nails and wooden planks.

According to several people who were at the scene, both bridges were completed before rescue workers arrived at about 6.30, 10 minutes after the accident. But others, including Mr Azouz, said ambulances did not arrive until about two and a half hours later, long after townspeople had begun moving dead and wounded passengers from the wreckage. "The police came late. They came at 9pm," said one local, who declined to give his name for fear of harassment from authorities. "The lack of public services in this area is the cause of this catastrophe."

Police authorities, for their part, said emergency crews were on the scene within 10 to 15 minutes of passers-by reporting the crash. It was the police, one anonymous investigator said, who alerted the villagers to the crash and ordered a local contractor to build the wooden bridge. The lack of clarity among witnesses and rescue workers was mirrored in the statistics in yesterday's newspapers. Whereas the ministry of health apparently reported a death toll of 25 people on Saturday and Al Ahram, the official newspaper of Egypt's government, said 10 people were killed, Al Masry Al Yawm, a popular independent daily, put the number at more than 30, while Al Sharouq, another daily, said 40 people had died.

Locals who were gathered at the scene yesterday estimated much higher numbers, with some putting the death toll at as high as 80 people. @Email:mbradley@thenational.ae