Egypt's decaying rail system caused train crash: transport minister

Fourth serious accident in seven months kills 19, unleashing anger at the government as it tries to steer Egypt from political and economic crises. Bradley Hope reports from Cairo

CAIRO // Nineteen young army conscripts were killed in a train accident yesterday, deepening anger at the government as it struggles to steer Egypt away from political and economic crises nearly two years after the uprising that toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak.

The train was carrying more than 1,300 conscripts to a military camp south of Cairo when one of its carriages veered off the tracks near the town of Badrashin and collided with a stationary goods train.

Another 117 soldiers were injured, some of them critically, according to the government.

It was Egypt's fourth serious train accident in less than seven months. The worst accident in a decade came in November, when a train near the city of Fayoum, south of Cairo, crashed into a school bus, killing 51 and injuring another 46. Most of the fatalities were children.

The minister of transportation resigned afterwards and was replaced with a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hatem Abdel-Latif, in a cabinet reshuffle by the president, Mohammed Morsi, earlier this month.

"We have to admit that the railway system is decaying," Mr Abdel-Latif told the state-run newspaper Al Ahram yesterday. "We will carry out investigations to know whether the accident happened because of defects in the train or rails, or because of other reasons."

Within hours of the crash, politicians erupted in fury. Members of the National Salvation Front, the umbrella opposition group to Mr Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, called on the prime minister, Hisham Kandil, to resign.

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the Al Dostour Party and a leading member of the Front, said in a message on Twitter that the problem in Egypt was not the president's political affiliation, but his inability to run the country.  "State failure is increasing and it is the people who are the victims," he tweeted. "Egypt kneels down every day."

The Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Brotherhood, said the regime of the former president Mubarak was to blame because it neglected the country's infrastructure for decades.

Saad El Katatny, the recently elected head of the party, said yesterday that the rise in accidents was "evidence of a near-total collapse of our infrastructure" and a "warning bell to all of us about the need to overcome political differences and to cooperate on rebuilding Egypt".

The office of the public prosecution in Cairo announced that it had launched an investigation into the accident and the prime minister said that each family of the deceased would be paid 30,000 Egyptian pounds (Dh16,740) in compensation and that those with injuries would also be compensated.

"I had dreamt that this country would be a better place after the revolution, not that every day our brothers and sisters would die," said Mustafa Ali, 20, a rickshaw taxi driver who rushed to the scene after the crash to assist the injured.

As politicians bickered over who should take responsibility, there were also non-partisan calls for an immediate review of the national transportation network and an upgrade of safety measures.

"It's not good enough to blame the driver … not on the switchman and not even the minister who was appointed days ago," wrote Ziad Bahaa Eldin, the vice chairman of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, on his Facebook page.

"We have collapsed completely and fixing [the system] is a national priority. It's unreasonable that we in the 21st century don't have a system to ensure train crossings and avoid collisions," he wrote.

* With additional reporting by Bloomberg News