Egypt's transport minister claims extremists could be using children to cause train crashes

A series of deadly train accidents in Egypt in recent months has sparked a national debate on rail safety

People gather at the site where train carriages derailed in Qalioubia province, north of Cairo, Egypt April 18, 2021. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Egypt’s transport minister claimed “extremist elements” within the national rail service may be using children as part of a sabotage campaign against the country’s trains, causing deadly accidents.

In a parliamentary address on Monday, where he presented no evidence, the minister alleged that railway employees sympathetic to banned extremist groups were behind a campaign to cause accidents.

Egypt’s rail services have for years been plagued by poor safety but a spate of accidents in recent months has led to growing public anger.

Transport Minister Kamel El Wazir has demanded legislation to empower him to fire those responsible – by his account, saboteurs.

His incendiary comments were made in an address to parliament, just hours before another accident occurred when a train ploughed into a truck on a level crossing in the Red Sea city of Suez, killing the vehicle’s driver and injuring his assistant. A train passenger was also injured.

It was the latest in a series of train accidents over a one-month period in which at least 43 people were killed and hundreds injured.

The accidents have spotlighted the struggling railway sector, making it the centre of a national conversation amid calls for severe punishment of those responsible.

Initial findings by prosecutors into the causes of the past month’s accidents have revealed a litany of criminal negligence, corruption and even the use of drugs by rail workers on duty.

Arrests have been made, with some railway officials now facing charges of manslaughter.

A declining rail network 

Egypt’s Railway Authority has 10,000 kilometres of tracks and employs nearly 45,000 people. Its first route was built in 1854. Two years later, the city of Alexandria on the Mediterranean and the capital Cairo were linked by rail.

The service’s fares remain among the world’s cheapest despite several hikes in recent years.

Beside hundreds of accidents a year - many of them too minor to be reported by the local media – the service is plagued by delays, overcrowding and technical glitches.

Thousands of street hawkers roam trains and stations selling a wide range of food, beverages and other items.

“There are known terrorist elements (working for the rail service) … the solution is the enactment of legislation to fire them,” the minister, who is a former army general, told parliament on Monday.

“It’s better to send a terrorist element home than keep him at work because his presence means more will be like him.”

He said 162 rail workers were found to be linked to groups espousing extremist ideologies or involved in incitement.

He called on authorities to either fire them or transfer them to “non-sensitive” jobs at other government departments. He did not specify which roles would not be "sensitive."

The minister provided no evidence to support his claim that extremists were behind some of the train accidents, saying only that children were occasionally being used to loosen rail screws or pelt trains with rocks.

“These children are not acting alone,” he said, suggesting that extremist groups were behind them.

Terrorist infiltrators 

A staunchly pro-government deputy, Mustafa Bakri, told Monday’s house session that more than 200 members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood continued to work at the state-owned rail service.

The brotherhood, branded a terrorist group in Egypt, ruled Egypt for a year before the military removed it from power in 2013 amid mass protests against its rule.

President Abdel Fatah El Sisi was at the time commander of the Egyptian military.

Mr El Wazir said the state’s top judicial body – the State Council – was looking into amending the railway regulations to allow for the dismissal of employees found to be taking drugs.

Currently, they are suspended from work for up to a year with their basic salary paid and subjected to random tests while on suspension. Offenders are allowed back to work if they test negative twice.

Cataloguing the challenges he faces in upgrading the railways, the minister said up to 50 per cent of the railway’s 3,000 carriages were 40 years old and only half of its 800 engine cars were operational, although plans were underway to import more than 100 new ones.

The reduced capacity of the service has meant the suspension of transporting goods and that only 750,000 passengers were using trains every day, a significantly low figure given Egypt’s population of 100 million.

Moreover, the service was burdened by an 88-billion-pound debt, he said.

He said there were plans to spend 225 billion pounds until 2024 on overhauling the rail service.