It can be a lonely ride on Cairo’s new electric trains.
The $1.24 billion, state-of-the-art rail network that opened in July has had problems attracting passengers, chiefly because the suburban east Cairo communities it links with the rest of the city and the new capital farther out in the desert are sparsely populated.
The government says it is merely a matter of time before business picks up and the project is validated. However, a recent rumour that the network was suspended because it was running at a loss has fuelled criticism of the government’s spending priorities, placing the transport project at the centre of a politically sensitive debate on economic policy.
The criticism has quickly gained traction given the dire economic situation in which the country found itself after the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war and the preceding coronavirus pandemic.
Emboldened by a window of relative freedom allowed by President Abdel Fattah El Sisi this year, commentators and economists argue that Egypt would have been better equipped to deal with the economic downturn had it not been for the billions of dollars spent on a series of mega-projects, such as the new capital and more than a dozen other cities across the country.
Some have also suggested that the projects have overburdened Egypt with debt.
For its part, the government has surprisingly opted to publicly address the rumour. Initially dismissing it as baseless and malicious, officials later acknowledged that the relatively high fares on the network — $1.80 for the longest journey — may also be a factor in the scarcity of passengers.
The government this month moved to slash fares by up to 40 per cent to encourage more commuters to use the new network. It also went on the defensive, challenging the notion that some of the mega-infrastructure projects undertaken may have been unnecessary, built too hastily or could have waited for a better economic climate.
“Don’t be afraid, your money is in safe hands. We plan for every eventuality,” said Transport Minister Kamel El Wazeer, alluding to the new rail network.
President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, the architect and driving force of the country’s modernisation, has addressed the broader question of spending priorities, reassuring Egyptians the mega-projects were studied and vetted thoroughly.
He cited the $8 billion upgrade of the Suez Canal, completed in 2015, as an example of his government’s sound judgment when many thought it unnecessary or ill-timed.
Last year, the waterway’s revenue reached a new high of $6.3 billion on the back of record tonnage and numbers of vessels using the canal and was expected to rise by $700 million in 2023 once transit fees increase.
Finance Minister Mohamed Maait also launched a detailed defence of the government’s borrowing policies, reassuring Egyptians in televised comments last week that it remained within safe limits.
However, no one, in or outside the government, is in denial about the gravity of the economic crisis.
“This time round, it’s really difficult because we have just come out of the coronavirus,” Mr El Sisi said last week of the current situation.
Amr Adeeb, arguably the most popular Arab TV talk show host and an ardent supporter of Mr El Sisi, could not have emphasised more the depth of the crisis when he told viewers that the worst was yet to come. “2023 will be dark and horrific,” he said.
The transport minister has cautioned against hastily judging the feasibility of the new electric train network. It will attract many more passengers when the satellite towns in eastern Cairo are populated to capacity, new universities open and the new capital is eventually inhabited and fully functioning, Mr El Wazeer argued.
“All these new urban centres had to be linked to Cairo,” he said, alluding to the existing link of the train network to the Cairo Metro. “We could have waited or ran the trains on a trial basis, but we have a social obligation towards residents, students and workers.”
“We have 25 million people living in Cairo who are joined by up to five million more on week days. Can you imagine if we did not embark on public transport projects like the electrical train? Cairo would have been like a warehouse of motionless cars.”
The network is part of a string of government projects to introduce more modes of transport that operate on clean energy. They include a monorail and a train service that will run for thousands of kilometres across the country’s length and breadth.
Cairo's new network is regarded as the jewel of these multibillion-dollar projects.
Run by French company RATP-Dev, it’s an impressive, if somewhat spartan, piece of engineering, with large, grey-walled and breezy stations, cutting-edge trains sporting stainless steel seats, video screens showing promotional clips of the project and a perfectly functioning intercom system broadcasting messages in English and Arabic.
The network, which currently operates on 70km of tracks dotted by 12 stations, was envisaged to attract 300,000 passengers daily, a target that is clearly way above current numbers. However, the network, the quality of service and punctuality constitute a qualitative leap for public transport in Egypt, a country of 103 million people.
Bands of cleaners in blue uniforms and yellow fluorescent vests keep the stations and trains spotless. Young women and men are on hand to guide passengers at the stations. Elevators are available for the use of the elderly and disabled. Exits have friendly “see you soon!” signs above them and young security men equipped with two-way radios patrol the network.
However, a reporter for The National saw first-hand how the trains were running nearly empty. He found himself alone with about two dozen network employees in one carriage heading east from the terminal.
On the return trip that same day, there was one passenger in one carriage beside the reporter. The carriage immediately behind had none.