Off the rails: Egypt’s deadly record of train accidents

Analysis Off the rails: Egypt’s deadly record of train accidents
Firefighters at the scene of the train crash at Cairo’s main railway station on Wednesday, above. (AFP)
Updated 28 February 2019

Off the rails: Egypt’s deadly record of train accidents

Off the rails: Egypt’s deadly record of train accidents
  • The country was among the first to introduce trains, but poor maintenance and deadly accidents have tarnished its history

CAIRO: The train accident in Cairo’s Ramses Station on Wednesday is just the latest in a long list of major railway disasters in Egypt that have caused hundreds of  deaths in recent decades. 

And while the cause of the most recent accident remains uncertain, people at the site of the crash appeared to be frustrated at the government’s failure to revamp the railway network.

“Is my fate to die (on the tracks)? It happens all the time ... what do the authorities do?” asked a man travelling from the Upper Egyptian province of Minya.

His comments speak to a larger frustration. 

Egyptians have long complained that the government has failed to deal with chronic transport problems in the country, where roads are as poorly maintained as railway lines, and fatal train accidents are a common occurrence. 

Figures from the official statistics agency show that there were 1,657 train accidents in 2017, up from 1,249 in 2016.

Trains are a vital component of the average Egyptian’s transportation, with 1.4 million passengers traveling by rail every day. The country’s railway lines stretch over 9,570 km through 705 passenger stations.

Egypt was the second country in the world after England to introduce the railway, and the first to do so in Africa and the Middle East. 

Construction began on July 12, 1851, with a line between Alexandria and Kafr Eassa beginning operations in 1854. Cairo’s Railway Museum, which opened near the Ramses Station in 1933 and was revamped in 2017, tells the story of this proud history.

So what went wrong with the region’s oldest rail system? Officials often blame the network’s poor maintenance on decades of negligence and a lack of funds.

Major train accidents date back to at least the 1990s. For instance, in December 1995, 75 people were killed when a train crashed into the back of another train.

The worst accident in Egypt’s history happened in February 2002 in El-Ayyat, 70 km south of Cairo, when a train traveling from Cairo to Luxor caught fire and travelled for 9 km before it was halted. While the death toll was placed at 383, some say it could have run as high as 1,000.

The last major incident occurred in August 2017, when two passenger trains collided near Egypt’s Mediterranean city of Alexandria, killing more than 40 people and injuring scores.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has called for a revamp of the national rail system, and during the past four years, the state has made various renovations to the railway lines, costing more than 300 million Egyptian pounds ($17 million). 

Last year, Egypt signed a deal for new passenger coaches worth $1.14 billion with a Russian-Hungarian consortium; the previous year it signed a $575-million deal with General Electric to buy 100 locomotives.

After Wednesday’s accident, the government was quick to respond. El-Sisi called on his government to carry out an investigation and to hold those responsible accountable.