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Safety Remains on the Sidelines of Egyptian Trains

Third-class travelers see few changes despite 2002 blaze that killed 360. Dilapidated system is plagued by crowding and low investment.

January 19, 2003|Rawya Rageh | Associated Press Writer

CAIRO — Hassan Abdel Shafy sits on a wooden seat in a third-class train car littered with orange peels and sandwich wrappers. The window to his right is broken. The box behind him, meant to hold a fire extinguisher, is empty.

Abdel Shafy doesn't expect first-class service for the 50 piasters (about a tenth of a U.S. cent) that he paid to travel 112 miles from Cairo to the northern province of Beheira. He would have liked, though, to have seen more change after a fire on a similar train in February 2002 killed 360 people.

At first, amid the shock and grief, it appeared that Egypt's deadliest train fire would spark improvements within a dilapidated railway service that has been plagued by overstaffing, low fares and under-investment.

The transport minister and the head of the railway authority resigned after the fire. Conductors were ordered to crack down on smoking and overcrowding. (In the wake of the fire, some conductors had argued that as long as everyone aboard had purchased a ticket, it wasn't their job to keep them from clinging to the roofs of the cars, sitting in the aisles or cramming themselves onto overhead baggage shelves when all the seats were taken.)

Authorities also announced a crackdown on cooking on the trains, and railway officials issued orders that at least one fire extinguisher should be available in every car.

Investigators maintained that the blaze was started among the passengers, possibly by a small stove. Passengers and tea vendors often carry such stoves to heat food and fix tea and coffee, despite regulations banning them.

In September, when a judge acquitted all 11 low-level Railway Authority workers charged with gross negligence and faking reports that the train was properly equipped with functioning fire extinguishers, he concluded what many who ride the trains every day think: The government never made a real effort to find out what went wrong or to ensure that problems wouldn't recur.

As he announced his innocent verdicts, Judge Saad Abdel Wahid urged the government "to show more transparency and efficiency."

He said that although prosecutors provided 2,000 documents, they could not establish "who was really responsible for the negligence and recklessness."

"Judges are sick and tired of cases where the underdogs are being brought [for trial] while the chiefs are left untouched," Abdel Wahid said.

Railway Authority officials did not reply to repeated requests for an interview. Prosecutor Gen. Maher Abdel Wahed, who has appealed acquittal of the 11 railway workers, also did not respond to interview requests.

Abdel Al Teghyan, a school principal who escaped but lost two of his nephews in the fire, said he was satisfied that the 11 workers were acquitted.

"They were just scapegoats and the ones who should have been put on trial are the big ones -- the [transportation] minister and his entourage," he said.

"I am very frustrated the top officials have not been held responsible," added Hassan Ismail, a civil servant and another survivor of the Feb. 20 fire. "Every time I get onto a train, I feel it will flip over because of the poor services."

In other countries, survivors and relatives of the dead might organize to push for change. That hasn't happened in Egypt, where there is little tradition of such grass-roots lobbying, and the right of assembly has been limited by strict emergency laws for the past 21 years.

After the train fire, Egyptian human rights activists took up defense of the 11 workers, seen by many as scapegoats, but no one stood up for the victims and their families.

"In Egypt, the approach of human rights groups is more focused on defending civil and political rights," said Yosri Mustafa, head researcher at the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. "There are no mechanisms to deal with rights of victims of mass accidents and with proper living conditions, for instance."

In a country of 68 million, where 20% of the people live in poverty, cheap train service, however dangerous, is the only way for many to get around.

After the fire, train fares increased slightly to add a mandatory insurance fee. A third-class ticket from Cairo heading about 415 miles south to the end of the line in Luxor costs roughly $1.60 -- an increase of 33 cents from before the fire.

Special services were developed to improve trains ferrying between the capital and southern points, which have long been more dilapidated than those traveling north from the capital.

Special third-class cars to Luxor are newly painted, have new seats and windows, no-smoking signs and clean bathrooms, all for around $2.

Old third-class cars covered with rust, however, still run. On a recent visit, a reporter found broken wooden seats, shattered windows and two fire extinguishers available in just one of the cars on a six-car, third-class train.

Abdel Shafy, preparing for his trip to Beheira, is still riding, despite the fire and the little done since to shore up safety.

"There isn't much improvement. Train supervisors try to make sure cars are not overcrowded but it does not always work," he said. "But they fine people who smoke inside the train now."

New rules might have been made, but not necessarily publicized.

On hearing Abdel Shafy mention the no-smoking rule, Sayed Sadeq, sitting nearby, put out his cigarette, saying: "I did not know about that regulation."

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