Egypt's rail tragedy rallies critics

Outraged over a train crash Monday that killed at least 58 people and injured dozens, Egyptians demanded that the government overhaul the country's decrepit railway system, also calling for major improvements in Egypt's other transportation services.

As proof of the sorry state of these services, government critics point to the country's worst train disaster in February 2002 that killed 363 people, many traveling south for an important Islamic holiday. Just last February the tragic sinking of a passenger ferry resulted in more than 1,000 deaths.

"One of the things the government must do is invest real money in the transportation sector," says Hafez Aboul Saada, head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.

Monday's train crash occurred in the morning after an Egyptian commuter train 12 miles north of Cairo ignored a stop signal and slammed into another train. In addition to the 58 dead, more than 140 were injured.

Since the accident, Egypt's national rail chief was fired and his deputy suspended, pending an investigation into the crash. The government also said it had launched an inquiry with results expected in 48 hours and promised to form a technical committee to study the accident's causes and prevent future crashes.

Government critics, however, were unimpressed with these steps, accusing the state of reacting the same way to all such tragedies. Government resignations and investigations, they say, lead to no major improvements – and no decrease in fatal accidents. "The government is offering nothing concrete about what needs to be done," says Hisham Kassem, vice chairman of the independent daily Al Masry Al Yom.

Critics say that Egypt's rail system, often packed with poorer passengers who can afford the rock-bottom prices, is sorely neglected and aging. They say it suffers from widespread corruption, that the railway administration is inefficient and undisciplined, and that equipment is in terrible shape.

A transportation ministry spokeswoman agreed that the rail service is deteriorated – and dangerous – saying that the ministry has already embarked on a five-year, $1.5 billion plan to rehabilitate the service. "Egypt's railway system is a lifeline for the country," says Hala Fawzy, media adviser to Egypt's transportation minister. "It transports up to half a billion passengers a year and needs immediate attention."

The ministry's plan includes renovating Egypt's locomotive engines and passenger cars, replacing the train rails, and training personnel.

Fawzy adds that the ministry is hard at work improving Egypt's other transportation services, including railways, maritime services, subways, roads, and bridges. "Frankly, all the transportation sectors need to be upgraded," she says.

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