by Marwa Yahia
Deemed the first in Africa, Egypt’s railways network has always been a source of pride. However, its performance in recent years has been tainted with negligence and lack of maintenance, which caused many accidents that claimed hundreds of lives.
Over the past 15 years, more than 1,500 people lost their lives in train collisions and derailments.
On Thursday, a passenger train derailed in Upper Egypt’s governorate of Beni Suef, leaving at least 70 people injured.
In March last year, seven people were killed when a train collided with a school bus on an unauthorized railway crossing east of Cairo.
In November 2012, a train in the Upper Egyptian province of Assiut hit a school bus, leaving 48 dead, 44 of them children.
But the deadliest disaster occurred in February 2002 when 370 people were killed in a fire that gutted a train in south of the capital.
“The main reason for these accidents is people’s actions,” says Samy Mokhtar, head of the Egyptian Association for Road Victims Care.
He explains that there are two types of railroad track crossings. The first one is formally constructed and overseen by the Egyptian Railway Authority (ERA), while the second is illegally built by residents in rural areas to facilitate the crossing of animals, carts and cars.
The illegal crossings are more prone to accidents due to their poor construction and lack of oversight, Mohktar told Xinhua.
According to the Central Administration of Railway and Engineering, the number of formal crossings is 1,337 while the illegally built ones is at a whopping estimate of 4,000.
“People don’t follow instructions while crossing railway lines,” Mohktar said, blaming also the government for not paving more roads near rural villages, which force residents to pass through illegal crossings.
At the same time, he called for opening the door to investments from Arab and other foreign countries to help the government fund projects improving the railways system.
Developing the train control system, crossings and signals need at least 70 billion pounds (8.9 billion dollars), said Hussein Fadaly, former head of the Egyptian Railway Authority.
Development of the rail system in Egypt started as early as 1858, making the most-populous Arab country only the second after Britain at that time.
“Now, Egypt ranks 78 worldwide in railways,” Mohktar said.
Over the past three years, Egypt saw nearly 760 train accidents, according to recent statistics released by the Egyptian Transport Ministry.
Fadaly, for his part, lamented the current dependence on humans at the majority of railway crossings.
“The ERA still depends totally on humans, who don’t abide by instructions to the letter,” Fadaly, said. “As far as humans are concerned, there could always be errors.”
He noted that 85 percent of the railway signal systems are mechanical and run manually; only 15 percent are electric, but the systems are very old and lack spare parts.
Like Mokhtar, Fadaly also blamed the crossings, whether legal or illegal, for many of the accidents.
Even the legal crossings need maintenance, he stressed, adding that the construction of one crossing costs the government 3 million Egyptian pounds (about 382,000 U.S. dollars.)
Another problem plaguing the railway system is the theft of switchers, metal nails and other spare parts, which also result in accidents and derailments. Authorities put the losses from such thefts at 38 million pounds (about 4.5 million dollars) in 2012. Enditem