Sohag train tragedy: Egyptian investigators find trail of negligence

Initial report shows failings by train operators and control staff before deadly accident

A government investigation into Egypt’s deadly train crash last month has uncovered a harrowing litany of criminal negligence and inefficiency that killed 20 people and injured 199.

Factors leading to the accident in March 26 in Sohag province included a train driver and assistant ignoring red lights to stop, and drug abuse, according to initial findings released by the General Prosecution’s office on Sunday.

The Health Ministry and the state railway authority said the accident happened when a train made an unscheduled stop near the station of a rural town.

Another train crashed into the back of the first train, causing two carriages to overturn. The engine of the second train was derailed.

Authorities detained the train drivers, their assistants and signal staff the day after the accident.

The statement on Sunday raised the death toll to 20 and that of the injured to 199. It said the damage was estimated at about 26 million Egyptian pounds ($1.6m).

Although rail accidents in Egypt are common, the accident in Sohag triggered an outcry over the death toll.

It also raised questions about the large sums being spent on upgrading the rail service and led to calls for harsh punishment for anyone found responsible.

One finding in the report contradicted a claim by the railway authority that the first train stopped because someone pulled the emergency brake.

Passengers, conductors and other railway employees on board told investigators they did not hear the loud noise normally produced by pulling the emergency brake. But the report did not say why the train made the unscheduled stop.

The report said the driver of the train approaching from behind and his assistant claimed that they were at the wheel at the time of the crash. The driver's assistant told investigators that light signals remained green until the point where he could see the other train 500 metres ahead. The driver of the train said he could see the other train only when he was 100 metres behind it.

The head of the regional railway control room left his office without authorisation shortly before the crash and the two employees he left in charge showed gross negligence, the report said.

“One of the two employees was late in alerting the incoming train about the other train that stopped and initially gave its driver the wrong number of the other train,” it said. “The other employee quit trying to get in touch with the driver of the incoming train. He claimed to have twice tried to reach him by telephone”, but records showed he did not make those calls.

Recordings of radio conversations showed that warnings from the control room were issued late and did not continue long enough, the report said.

Investigators found that a light signal 1.3km from the crash site was yellow, meaning the train had to slow down. Another signal nearer to the site was red.

Investigators conducted 13 simulations and all showed the approaching train could have stopped about 500 metres before the crash site if the driver had heeded the red light.

Blood tests also showed the assistant driver of the train that made an unscheduled stop and an employee at a signal tower near the spot used drugs.

The government has spent 40 billion Egyptian pounds on upgrading Egypt’s railway network in the past six years and plans to spend 141bn more in the next few years.

Authorities say more railway accidents can be expected until the overhaul is completed but that extreme caution would meanwhile be exercised, which could lead to considerable delays.

The crash was the deadliest rail accident in Egypt since February 2019, when an engine car laden with fuel hit a wall at Cairo’s main train station, igniting a fire that killed 22 and injured scores.

In 2017, two passenger trains collided in northern Egypt, killing at least 41 people and injuring more than 120.

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