Dicing with death on Alexandria's level crossings

Dicing with death on Alexandria's level crossings
Feature: Years of neglect and understaffing have turned Alexandria’s railway level crossings into deathtraps, but there is neither the will or the money to do anything about them.
5 min read
11 March, 2015
Locals call them "crossings to the afterlife" [Al-Araby]

The people of Egypt's Mediterranean city of Alexandria fear the railway level crossings in the middle of residential areas. They call them "crossings to the afterlife" due to accidents that have resulted in an increasing number of deaths and injuries.

Not a day goes by without the people of the city waking up to a new catastrophe, with dozens of victims on the rail tracks, not only because of a lack of security and safety measures but also because of official negligence and carelessness when facing risks threatening the lives of more innocent people.

The Ministry of Transport and the National Railways Authority (NRA) both announced more than once that they were allocating funds to develop the level crossings in different areas and neighbourhoods, yet the situation remains unchanged. Residents still witness the same horrors at different level crossings.

No safety at Alexandria's level crossings

Last week, only divine intervention saved the lives of students in a school bus.

- Mahmoud el-Sayed

During a tour in the governorate of Alexandria, al-Araby al-Jadeed noticed how similar the level crossings were. They all lacked safety measures and maintenance. Some of them were more famously dangerous than others, namely in al-Amiriyah, Green Plaza mall, Bakous and al-Qabbari.

"They have changed from safe crossings for trains and cars into death traps for citizens," said Ali Ahmed, a commerce student who lives the western area of Nage al-Arab. "I am used to the daily moments of anticipation and anxiety as I pass through the level crossing on my way to university."

Ahmed added that the level crossings completely lack the necessary technical capabilities to save lives. "The gates, if any, are very basic, mostly iron chains or ropes. Some of the crossings do not have traffic lights, and most alarms signalling the approach of the train are broken. We mostly depend on the worker on duty and his ability to organise the traffic," he said.

Mahmoud al-Sayed, an employee, contributed his opinion. "The number of deaths and injuries due to train crashes increase in a geometric proportion every year. As time goes by, the numbers multiply. In the latest accident, a train crashed into some cars, and last week, only divine intervention saved the lives of more than 30 students in a school bus," he said.

Sayed explained that crashes take place frequently due to the obvious lack of assigned workers. "The only way to solve this problem and stop these accidents is to control the level crossings electronically instead of manually, letting go of 'rusty' old methods."

Administrative failure

Lawyer Mahmoud Hassan said there had been many accidents at level crossings and the collapse of railway services made this worse, because of administrative failure and the lack of maintenance and training. This required a complete change in the administration, officials needed to be held to account, and a plan developed to stop the frequent transport catastrophes and compensate victims' families to protect the Egyptian people's humanity.

Hassan criticised the continuation of what he described as superficial attempts to deal with the crisis, such as changing the Minister of Transport and the NRA director after every accident, without reforming the system as a whole. He demanded the immediate re-establishment of the old transport system on a proper and scientific basis.

"Even traffic workers cannot do anything. All he has are a whistle and a rope or a worn out wire. He does not even have a deputy or an assistant to cover his duties when he leaves. The alarm sirens or lights are always broken, and many drivers and citizens do not hear or see them, which forces them into a race with the train to see who crosses first. Sometimes it goes safely, but other times many pay the price with their lives," Hassan said.

On the other hand, Alexandrian Saad al-Mohammadi refused to blame the traffic workers stationed at al-Qabbari level crossing for the frequent accidents. He said that the lack of development of the crossings did not only threaten the lives of residents, but also "the railway workers and train drivers who may become victims themselves."

Mohammadi said the governorate's level crossings were not any better than those in other parts of the country. "Some are run-down and have not had any maintenance in years, lacking the most basic safety measures and managed in basic methods. They do not have any iron gates; most of them directly depend on the worker who cannot organise the traffic on his own," he added.

"Level crossings in residential areas are becoming increasingly dangerous. Thousands of residents are forced to cross over every day, and street vendors put their merchandise on the surrounding pavement, making it more difficult for the traffic worker to stop cars and pedestrians from crossing as the train approaches. People do not even stop when they hear the alarm, which leads to dozens of accidents," said Hassan Saad.

The shortage of funding is behind the delay in the multi-phase development of the level crossings.
- Anonymous NRA official

"We filed several complains about the low wages and the severe lack of workers or policemen to protect the lives of thousands of citizens, as well as the lack of amenities and inhumane workplaces. There is no access to bathrooms during work shifts of up to 12 hours," he added.

The National Railways Authority: Alexandria's level crossings are manual

An NRA official speaking on conditions of anonymity said: "there are 38 level crossings in West Delta, including 17 in Alexandria. They all work manually and need to be developed by installing e-gates that do not require human intervention."

He added that the shortage of resources and finances is the reason behind the delay in the multi-phase development of the level crossings, undoubtedly contributing in their poor condition and deteriorations, along with the lack of safety measures, maintenance and training.

"Part of the responsibility falls on the Egyptian citizens who do not abide by the general law and ignore the instructions when crossing over. It can also be blamed on the poor condition of the tracks or the train cars and the lack of renovations," he said, also blaming train passengers for their behaviour, which constitutes a burden on the NRA.

This is an edited version from our Arabic edition.