Another rail accident. Now what?

Daily News Egypt
11 Min Read

Look, there’s good news and there’s bad news.

The good news is that if you’re Egyptian, you’re more likely to drop dead of a heart attack than be killed in a transport accident.

The bad news is, not much.

Figures on those subjects tend to be a little difficult to come by, but it does appear that heart-disease is still the major cause of what researchers helpfully call ‘avoidable death’ in Egypt.

The figures on transport deaths are a little better documented – there were 6,000 people killed in road accidents every year. If the idea of 6,000 deaths annually doesn’t bother you much, then consider that it costs the country about LE 3 billion, almost 3 percent of the GDP, annually, according to the Road Safety and Traffic Management Report.

That figure doesn’t take into account those killed in rail accidents, but neither of last week’s rail tragedies topped the one in February 2002, when a fire set off by a passenger with a stove resulted in 363 people either burned alive or leaping to their deaths, desperate to escape the flames.

Egypt’s transport network doesn’t make for a fun bed-time story.

On Aug. 21, two passenger trains collided in Qalyoub, a Delta governorate. Precisely what happened is still hazy – a technical report promised by Transport Minister Mohamed Mansour 24 hours after the accident has still not come out. But it appears that one train was stationary on the tracks and the second train ignored a signal. Eye-witnesses say they screamed to the first driver that a train was coming and he managed to move forward 15 meters or so. It was neither far enough, nor fast enough. The second train ploughed into the first, its engine exploding into flames on impact. Four carriages derailed, strewing wreckage and carnage across the tracks.

At least 58 people died, with scores more injured. Just to drive the point home, the following day a sleeper train crashed into a tractor that was, inexplicably, on the tracks.

A day after that, a tourist bus accident near Nuweiba left nine Israeli Arabs dead.

And the day after that, 11 Egyptians died when their minibus overturned. They were celebrating a wedding.

It’s been a tough year for Mansour. He kicked off his term with the country’s worst ferry disaster ever, with over 1,000 people dying when a ferry coming from Saudi Arabia went down February of last year.

Last week, the photos of Mansour desperately mopping a sweating brow were gleefully published by the Wafd Party’s eponymous-named paper under the headline: Accusations and fights between the government and Parliament.

It’s enough to make you feel sorry for him.

However, one’s sympathies must lie with the 1,000 who went down with the ferry last February, with the 58 who were robbed of their lives on that train last Monday, with the 20 people who were robbed of the chance to celebrate a wedding or a holiday.

As always, the government scrambled into the kind of righteous action that accompanies accidents such as these. The head of the state railways and his next in command were unceremoniously sacked the day after the accident. The minister promised a technical report (which has yet to materialize). The Prime Minister said that LE 8.5 million would be dedicated to refurbishing the railway network, with LE 5 million being taken from the sale of the country’s third mobile license and the rest to be ‘borrowed.’

The truth is, these measures are the equivalent of rushing an ambulance to the morgue. Egypt’s railways are a disgrace and the government knows it.

The People’s Assembly knows it. The commuters who risk their lives every day merely by going to work know it. And the people who lost their lives will bear judgment to that fact.

It is not enough for the minister to say that railways are in a terrible state, with a staggering half the trains in service needing to be modernized, quarter of them being over 30 years old. Something has to be done immediately. Egypt is not a rich nation, but according to the 2005 Human Development Report, it’s quite rich enough to be a welfare state and to be able to support its citizens. The problem is, its citizens don’t appear to be worth much.

Why is it that the rail accidents that have occurred have all been on the third-class trains? Those of us who use rail travel are probably used to the speedy, efficient rail service that runs between Cairo, Alexandria and Upper Egypt. Those trains are fast, efficient and surprisingly cheap. The third class service is another matter altogether. We’ve all seen them; dirty, unbelievably crowded and frighteningly rickety-looking. One civil servant recently interviewed by The Daily Star Egypt said bitterly, “if these trains were abroad, they wouldn’t be used to transport animals.

Perhaps, but someone appears to think that they’re quite good enough for our people.

After the horrific rail accident of 2002, the government, again, scrambled when it was too late. The transport minister was sacked and prices were raised to fund an improved service. A year later, a survey done by Al-Ahram Weekly found that nothing had changed. The carriages were still old, dangerously crowded, falling apart in some cases, and with no discernible safety measures. They were just more expensive for the commuter.

In other words, those who least could afford it were ultimately paying the highest price of all.

The poor of this country consistently get a raw deal. Approximately 16.7 percent of Egyptians live below the poverty line (what the UN classifies as below $2 per day) but the demographics are telling. Sixty-one percent of Assiut, for example, is classified as ‘poor’ as opposed to 6.2 percent in governorates in the urban north according to the Human Development Report. The report laid the blame largely at the government’s feet, saying that the poor had not been integrated into the development process.

This lack of integration translates into neglect in the minds of many. Those trains handle Egypt’s less fortunate every day. The microbuses that frequently overturn, killing their passengers, the ferry that went down; these passengers are not generally the country’s more economically advantaged.

After the ferry disaster, the owner, Mahmoud Ismail, fled the country before being formally charged. Ismail was rich, he was a member of the People’s Assembly and, in the eyes of many, these two criteria were enough to ensure that he never had to accept responsibility. In the eyes of most Egyptians, the only heads which rolled were those of the victims. And the overwhelming feeling is that once the blood has dried on the tracks, things will go back to their negligent norms. Poor people, it seems, don’t matter. Once the opposition press has grown tired of trying to embarrass the government, the only people who will remember are the families of the victims. And, of course, those who ride the trains every day.

In the case of the latest train incidents, it must be pointed out that the dismissal of the state railway chief was almost immediate, that the decision to dip into the proceeds from the telecom sale has already been announced. And I am not calling for the resignation of Minister Mansour – if we asked for the resignation or dismissal of a minister every time we had a national disaster or disappointment, we wouldn’t have ministers on the cabinet long enough to remember their names, let alone get anything done.

The rail service was a disaster before Mansour ever came on the scene and he has been campaigning hard for funds from international donors to fix the rail system since he came on board. However, the fact that blame cannot necessarily be laid at his door does not mean that responsibility cannot. It can and should be. Nor is it enough to say that that current system is a shambles – it is the responsibility of the government to fix it and to provide its citizens with an efficient, safe means of transport. That’s what ministries are there for. The fact that it will be a hard task is the problem of those in positions of responsibility. It should not be the responsibility of the country’s commuters.

It is the task of a go
vernment to provide public services. More obliquely, a government must provide its citizens with the feeling that they matter, that they have a stake in the country. This government has said that it wishes to push a democratic reform agenda. Ballot boxes don’t register wealth, merely faith and approval. And while administrations might have short memories, voters do not. With power comes responsibility and a government that hinges on one factor without respecting the other is not one that can expect loyalty or respect.

Mirette F. Mabrouk is Publisher of The Daily Star Egypt.

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