Why has Egypt’s government shut down the rail network?

 In Archive, Egypt

The new military government has shut down Egypt's railway network. Signals at Ismailiya station. (Author)The gruelling and expensive network shut-down continues, by order of the Interior Ministry. In a few days the shut-down will have lasted an entire fortnight and on Wednesday will enter its 3rd week. I’ll cover the staggering losses incurred by both the national railway company and the Cairo Metro in articles below, and these are being reported by the Egyptian media. However, the lack of questioning of this amazing situation in the media is bizarre. As I said in a previous post, I think there are three aspects to this unprecedented shut-down, and all stem from differing security decisions.

  1. First, the military wish to protect the network, infrastructure and equipment including rolling stock, staff and travelling public. This seems to have a measure of public understanding, if not support, as it is justified as an anti-terrorism precaution. Shutting the entire railway network still seems to me a massive over-response.
  2. Second they wish to slow or stop the free movement of people, particularly people arriving in Cairo to boost the numbers of Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Many of the protests from Wednesday 14th occurred in very sensitive and central spots in Cairo and Giza, and the week preceding 14th saw a number of incidents affecting national and metro train services, such as here and here. In fact the Fateh Mosque that made the international media stands at the south side of Ramses Square only about 200 metres from Cairo Central Station.*
  3. Third is the question of how to deploy police and military forces since the stand-off and imposition of the State of Emergency. My hunch is this stems from a decision to concentrate of police and military forces in case of mass protests or violent responses and create strategic reserves.

On the whole, I think it is particularly urgent that people are allowed to get back to work and live normally, given the circumstances, and try to get the economy back on track.

*I found a very good photo taken next to this but, as some readers might find it upsetting, I have chosen not to add it here.

Interesting background on the shut-down

 

Here’s an interesting piece from 28th August about the impact the shut-down is having on the wider community in Egypt, and it also mentions that certain trains are running in certain areas of the country, away from Cairo. Profiteering by private taxi and bus drivers is only to be expected, I suppose, given the situation. Here is the translation:

The curfew on the railways throughout Egypt has caused intense congestion and grumbling from the public about the length of the curfew period, which has impacted negatively on their daily work lives.

Ala Nazir, a supervisor and head of the railway’s anti-corruption committee in Minya, said Upper Egypt line services had been completely halted since the curfew was applied. The sole exception is a daily local stopping train departing Mughagha at 8am and running south to Asyut, to inspect the railway track and ease the movement of passengers a certain amount. He added that ENR’s losses since the curfew was applied now amount to EGP 52 million. However the company prefers a material loss from shutting the line rather than exposing its staff, train drivers and passengers to any personal risk, especially in light of the security forces’ inability to safeguard the line to any great extent.

Nazir spoke of the need for the security forces nationwide to pursue and arrest all criminal elements so that the public can be safe and secure, particularly in far-flung places in Upper Egypt, and the railway can be restored to service. Train services in Sohag Governorate were totally paralysed as a result of demonstrations by supporters of the ousted [President] that halted trains and caused considerable confusion among passengers and financial losses to ENR as the trains shut down.

For his part, Col M. Zahran, director of Sohag railway station, said the railway shut-down was ordered by the government in light of the mass demonstrations and other events the country has been experiencing. The idea was to avoid them recurring or impeding the security operation that aims to prevent mass demonstrations in various squares. The shut-down affects train services from Upper and Lower Egypt into Cairo.

Abd el-Razaq Abu el-Ala, a man from Tahta who works in Sohag, said getting to the town had become extremely difficult because of the poor communications between provincial centres. This was due to the lack of service taxis and the train shut-down added to the security operations generally in Egypt and specifically in Sohag.

One aspect is that service taxi drivers are exploiting the train shut-down by raising their fares, such that the fare from Sohag to Cairo had increased from EGP55 to EGP100 and passengers had become ‘fed up’ with the drivers setting fares at will.

From the day the curfew was imposed in 11 Egyptian governorates, most train services ceased, including in Alexandria where just 9 trains were running beyond the governorate after services to Cairo were stopped. Trains on the Alexandria to Abu Qir suburban line continue.

Head of Movements at Alexandria’s Misr Station said trains were currently only operating from Alexandria to a limited number of governorates considered ‘safe routes’ on which the security forces were permitting trains to operate. These included Tanta, Damanhur, Kafr el-Sheikh, Mansura, Zaqaziq, Port Said and Muhalla el-Kubra. The first train leaves at 7:30am and the last at 7:30pm in accordance with the curfew times.

He said it was possible that passengers might board an advertised train but security instructions might not permit it to depart, so station staff have no alternative but to cancel the train in light of the security situation in the country.

The Head of Movements said staff were not suffering through the railway’s inactivity and were being paid normally. He said they could see these measures were safer at the moment, until the security forces could detain all the members of terrorist groups who were still at large. As for a date for Cairo services to resume normal running, the Head of Movements said this was unknown, not even by the Transport Minister, because in present circumstances only the Interior Ministry could issue instructions to change schedules or resume services.

Beyond the station, taxi drivers were seizing the opportunity to raise fares from Alexandria to Cairo, so in the morning it was up from EGP25 to 30 and up to 35 in the evening. [The article finishes with a discussion of taxis and traffic congestion in Beni Suef. People’s memories of the chaotic situation that prompted the emergency measures is already fading and most just want the situation to return to normal].

Note

From April to November 2013 I kept a news blog about Egyptian Railways, where I translated and summarised articles from the Egyptian (Arabic) press and posted them in English. This was through the period of the dissolution of the Muslim Brotherhood government, after which train services were suspended for many weeks. This is one of a small number of the 150 blog posts I wrote during that time. 

If you have any stories about railways or the Middle East in general that you would like help to write or publish, please get in touch.

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