A bullet train for Egypt

On computer drafts, the train looks fast and sleek, and with the help of the Siemens group, it will soon run in Egypt. But there is still a tremendous rumble on the country’s rails – and there are always deaths. Will the country make the leap into the rail future?

The illustration provided by Siemens Mobility shows a Velaro.

SFast, modern and safe – this is how Egypt’s Minister of Transport, Kamil al-Wasir, describes the high-speed train that is expected to rush through the desert state in two years’ time. 1000 kilometers of new route are planned, to the seaside resort of Hurghada on the Red Sea, to the new capital east of Cairo, up to the Mediterranean Sea and south to Luxor. For the first section, the government relies on the expertise of the Munich-based Siemens group. Total cost of the project: the equivalent of around 19 billion euros.

A model of the sleek train with blue stripes was presented by President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi earlier this year. But while al-Sisi promises tomorrow’s technical progress, the Egyptian rail network is plagued by yesterday’s problems. Badly trained employees, delayed modernization work and a lax handling of regulations have left Egypt’s rail network, the oldest in Africa and the Middle East, to decay.

The consequences are always fatal. The last time there were five accidents within a month. Near Assiut a train raced into another, north of Cairo another derailed. Balance of these two disasters alone: ​​41 dead and around 340 injured. In the worst accident in the country’s recent history, a train caught fire in 2002, killing more than 360 people. A 2018 report counted 1,000 collisions per year. There are worlds between images of these accidents and the dream of a high-speed train.

People stand in front of two derailed train wagons, one of which has overturned.
People stand in front of two derailed train wagons, one of which has overturned.: Image: dpa

The Siemens subsidiary Siemens Mobility is still keeping a low profile on the project. Only the letter of intent has been signed and the negotiations are in the middle, so construction has not yet started. As can be heard from industrial circles, the competition for the major project was tough – according to Egyptian media reports, it also came from China. In Munich there is no comment on that. “We feel honored and proud that the Ministry of Transport wants to entrust us with the implementation of this important project,” said a spokesman simply. Egypt is an “important market”.

Siemens sends two top people to sign

The importance of the project at Siemens Mobility became apparent when the letter of intent was signed in Cairo. With the outgoing boss Joe Kaser and the new boss Roland Busch, Siemens had sent both top people. The planned route will be the first electric main line in Egypt, it is said. In addition, it should be used for freight transport.

Prisident Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi
Prisident Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi: Image: Reuters

Together with local partners, Siemens Mobility is to deliver turnkey products – from the rail infrastructure to trains and locomotives as well as maintenance for 15 years. According to information from January, the Munich-based company has an order volume of around 2.5 billion euros.

The cooperation with President al-Sisi, who has critics persecuted with all severity, also causes displeasure. “The joy of a high-speed train only lasts for a short time if fundamental and human rights are trampled on board,” says Kai Gehring (Greens), member of the Bundestag and a member of the Human Rights Committee. “Sham stability” and “economic relations” should not hide the fact that al-Sisi’s “brutal security apparatus” is concerned.

With face masks on a train in Egypt
With face masks on a train in Egypt: Image: dpa

Elsewhere, high-speed traffic (HSR) has long been the backbone of onshore passenger traffic. Japan, where the HSR network brought 420,000 passengers a day to their destinations at speeds of up to 320 kilometers per hour in 2018, is considered a pioneer. China has clearly caught up and today has the largest network in the world with around 38,000 kilometers of HSR routes. By 2035 it should be 70,000 kilometers.

Criticism of the “luxury train for luxury people”

France played a pioneering role in Europe. Today the local “Train à grande vitesse” (TGV) and in Germany the Intercity Express (ICE), which went into operation in 1991, are flagships. The European network is constantly being expanded and now extends from Portugal to Greece to Scotland, Norway and Russia. Auto-Land USA is lagging behind, as the Institute for Environmental and Energy Studies EESI writes. The first HSR train in California should start rolling in 2029 at the earliest.

Passengers look out of the windows and doors of a crowded train a few hours before a night curfew begins.
Passengers look out of the windows and doors of a crowded train a few hours before a night curfew begins.: Image: dpa

In Egypt, where, according to official figures, around a third of the approximately 100 million inhabitants live in poverty, there is some resistance. “Luxury train for luxury people,” complains an author and dentist on Twitter. Actor Amr Wakid asks why there are billions for the train to a seaside resort while oxygen bottles are missing in the corona pandemic and the health system is groaning.

After all: The old rail network is to be renewed with the equivalent of 550 million euros and operations will run better in the future with the help of foreign companies. Transport Minister al-Wasir already has further plans, as he reveals in an interview with the TV broadcaster MBC Misr: The HSR network should not extend 1000, but maybe even 1700 kilometers – as far as Libya and Sudan.