When the train is late in Germany, conductors hand out official slips called “certificates of train tardiness,” which passengers can then produce at workplaces or business appointments as proof of intended punctuality. Also proof: a public transportation system that knows its business and handles it well. This efficient system is what the Egyptian government wants to replicate, after reaching a cooperation agreement with German Railways.
Egypt acknowledges that it needs support in technical areas, as well as financing much-needed infrastructure upgrades. These talks formed most of the chatter as Egyptian PM Mostafa Madbouli met with the President of the German Railways Company, Richard Lotus, during a visit to Germany, for the Arab-Germany business forum in Berlin. The German Arab Chamber of Industry and Commerce (GACIC) hosted the platform for the exchange.
Madbouli was said to have recounted the many challenges stalling the rail system in Egypt, noting President Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s desire to see the country’s public transport system back on track. Amongst other factors, Madbouli blamed human error for most of Egypt’s railway accidents (which rose by thirty-three percent between 2016 and 2017). He hinted the government was retraining railways workers, as well as increasing the efficiency of crossings and traffic lights. In response, Lotus said Germany will train Egyptian railway cadres by sending its own operators to Egypt’s training institutes and centres, and by receiving Egyptian operators in Germany to see things works firsthand.
Germany’s Deutsche Bahn serves over 4.5 million passengers daily from more than 5,500 stations, on 29,000 trains. Egypt’s rail system serves 1.4 million people daily from more than 705 stations, on some 13,500 trains. And yet, Egypt recorded 1,793 accidents in 2017 alone. For a pioneer rail transport nation (Egypt was the second country in the world to use the rail system after England) those numbers are grim.
And maybe that is the problem: the fact that Egypt’s trains have been around for so long, remaining mostly unchanged, with dying or dead engines. Things got so bad after a deadly train accident in Cairo’s Ramses station this year that Transport Minister Hisham Arafat resigned. Two years before his resignation, Arafat had raised an alarm about the pedestrian state of the country’s railways, decisively urging automation of the system to prevent more accidents.
But human error is putting it mildly. Sometimes, train drivers are just self-railroaders. The Ramses disaster, for instance, which killed 20 and injured at least 43, happened because the driver got out of the car to fight another driver. A deadly crash in Alexandria in 2017 which left 41 dead and 130 injured, was blamed on possible drug abuse by the drivers of the colliding trains.
Nonetheless, Egypt has been working on improving its rail system and this agreement represents another step. Last month, it awarded Bombardier three billion euros to build a monorail system that will connect East Cairo to the New Administrative City. In 2017, Egyptian National Railways and General Electric agreed a $575 million deal to provide about 100 Light Evolution Series locomotives, as the country tried to phase out its oldest engines, which had a reported average age of thirty years.
At the time former minister Arafat raised the alarm, Egypt needed $6 billion dollars to achieve an impactful overhaul of the system. It isn’t known how much the country needs now, with all the spending that has been done already. But it certainly helps Egypt to have a country like Germany in her corner.
Interestingly, the man chiefly responsible for Germany’s capital train station Berlin Hauptbahnhof is Egyptian civil engineer Hani Azer, who has been called “Egypt’s greatest gift to Germany” by the German ambassador to Egypt. Egyptians will now be hoping to get a great gift in return.