TAHTA, Egypt: A collision between two trains killed at least 32 passengers and left more than 100 injured Friday in southern Egypt, a country plagued by fatal rail accidents widely blamed on crumbling infrastructure and poor maintenance. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi pledged tough punishment for those responsible for the crash, which came as his government wrestles with another major transport challenge, a giant container ship blocking the Suez Canal and causing huge traffic jams at either end.
The health ministry, which gave the casualty toll, said dozens of ambulances rushed to the scene in the Tahta district of Sohag province, some 460 km south of Cairo after the collision. Surveillance camera footage of the accident seen by AFP showed a carriage being violently thrown into the air in a cloud of dust when a speeding train rammed into another as it rolled slowly down the tracks.
Springs and twisted metal jutted out from the wreckage, as dozens of people gathered around the overturned carriages, an AFP correspondent reported. Harrowing images from inside one of the carriages posted on Facebook showed men and women screaming for help as they tried to free themselves from the wreckage. “People are dying. Where are the authorities? Help us,” one young man shouted repeatedly.
A video showed another man covered in dust trapped by twisted metal under what could have been the aisle of the carriage. In other footage, a man is heard urging a middle-aged woman who appears stuck between seats to move forward. She struggles and is heard saying: “Please, my son, help me.”
Egypt’s rail authority said the crash occurred after unidentified passengers had “activated emergency brakes in several carriages” on one of the trains. A statement said one train hit the last carriage of the other, causing at least two carriages to overturn between the stations of Maragha and Tahta.
One of the trains was travelling between the southern city of Luxor and Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast, while the other was on the way between Cairo and the southern city of Aswan. Health Minister Hala Zayed travelled to Sohag to check on the injured, as authorities opened an investigation. President Sisi vowed “deterrent punishment” for anyone found responsible. “Anyone who caused this painful accident through negligence or corruption, or anything similar, must receive a deterrent punishment without exception or delay,” he tweeted.
Egypt has been plagued with deadly train accidents in recent years. One of the deadliest was in 2002 when 373 people died as a fire ripped through a crowded train south of Cairo, and there have been many fatal crashes since. In March last year, at least 13 people were injured when two passenger trains collided in Cairo, triggering a brief suspension of rail services nationwide. At the time, rail managers blamed the crash on signals malfunctioning in bad weather.
And in February 2019, a train derailed and caught fire at Cairo’s main railway station, killing at least 22 people and injuring 41, and prompting the transport minister, Hisham Arafat, to resign. The following month, Sisi appointed a senior military officer, General Kamel Al-Wazir, to head the transport ministry.
Wazir had been the head of the Egyptian military’s engineering authority since 2015. The unit is behind many of the army’s mega-projects, including a new capital east of Cairo and construction of everything from hospitals to sewage treatment plants. Since he took office in 2014, Sisi has appointed military officers to high-ranking positions, including governorships.
He has repeatedly praised the military’s role in delivering major projects in record time such as the expansion of the Suez Canal in August 2015. The strategic waterway has made headlines since Tuesday, when the container ship MV Ever Given — which is longer than four football fields — got stuck across the entire canal closing off the vital shipping lane.
The blockage has caused huge traffic jams at either end of the 193-km-long canal and major delays in the delivery of oil and other products. An attempt to refloat the vessel failed yesterday, the vessel’s Singapore-based managers Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement said, as companies were forced to re-route services from the Suez around the southern tip of Africa, a far longer route. Egypt’s Suez Canal Authority said the vessel veered off course and ran aground when winds reaching 40 knots whipped up a sandstorm that hampered visibility. – AFP