Egypt Tries to Fix its Railways, but Challenges Lie Ahead

Cairo – Egypt’s new transport minister is focusing national attention on the railways in a positive manner for the first time in more than two decades. Kamel al-Wazir, an army general who headed the Engineering Section of the Egyptian army before taking over the transport portfolio on March 11, has turned the Railways Authority, the state-run operator of the nation’s trains, into a beehive of activity.

He tours the train stations, calls on administrative offices, and visits train maintenance workshops without giving prior notice.

Nevertheless, the new minister has a lot on his plate, even more than he can handle, transport experts have said.

“Problems have been accumulating in the railways sector for decades now,” said Hassan Mahdi, a professor of transport at Ain Shams University. “The management systems of the sector are totally outdated, increasing its problems even more.” And these problems of the sector are turning it into a death trap with railway accidents becoming a common occurrence.

On February 27, a train rammed into the platform of the central train station in the Egyptian capital Cairo, killing 25 people and injuring 50 others.

This was the latest in a long series of train tragedies. Between 2005 and 2017, a staggering 14,000 railway accidents took place in Egypt, including 1,793 in 2017 alone, according to government figures.

With outdated infrastructure, a lack of proper maintenance, an acute shortage of trained labor, and very old trains, Egypt has a long list of things to fix before their trains can be considered safe, transport experts said.

“The railways are badly in need of a revolution,” Mahdi said. Egypt’s railways are the oldest in Africa and the world’s second oldest after those of the Uk. The railways were established in 1951 and were a wonder at the time.

The trains used to worm their ways from the northern coastal city of Alexandria to the southernmost Egyptian city of Aswan without any problems. However, the lack of maintenance over the years and the lack of a state will to modernize the trains have caused them to become a national plague.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said two years ago that the modernization of his country’s railways needed investments of around 100 billion Egyptian pounds (roughly Us$5.7 billion). But this amount of money is hard to make available with Egypt trying to fix its economy and trying to economize on its spending.

Nevertheless, Sisi’s administration made deals for the purchase of hundreds of trains from different countries, including from Bulgaria, in deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

There are 5700 kilometers of railways in Egypt, but most of these are decades old. Railways Authority Chairman Ashraf Raslan sent shockwaves across the nation on February 28 when he revealed that the railways had not been upgraded for 40 years. Raslan lacks the authority necessary to modernize the railways and the trains while they continue to incur further losses year after year.

In 2017, the railways authority incurred losses of around 99 billion pounds (around $5 billion), according to the Budget and Planning Committee in the Egyptian parliament. “Around 25% of train passengers evade paying the fare,” Essam al-Fiqi, the secretary of the committee said. “This is why the authority is incurring losses,” he added.

Around 1 million Egyptians use their country’s trains every day and the trains carry around 6 million tons of goods to different parts of Egypt every year.

Al-Wazir, the 11th transport minister in less than nine years, whose department designed and oversaw the implementation of most of Egypt’s national megaprojects in the past five years, including the digging of a parallel channel to the Suez Canal in 2015, will have to address all of these problems as transport minister in the coming few years.

On March 15, he told passengers waiting for the trains inside the central train station in Cairo, where the February 27 tragedy happened that they would start to feel the difference from mid-2020. But whether this will happen, experts say, will depend on the measures he will take in the coming days to prevent the next train tragedy, which can be achieved only by making real investments into the upgrade of the railways.