Medhat and his friend have been sitting on a broken-down bench across from the decrepit train tracks in Heliopolis for about 15 minutes, waiting to take the tram home.
“It’s a failure,” shouts Medhat, explaining that the tram repeatedly breaks down and is often late or does not come through a station at all.
Both men are government employees themselves, but they still blame the lack of maintenance and general up-keep of the trams on the state.
As inefficient as it is, the tramline that runs through the Heliopolis neighborhood is the only remaining functioning tram in Cairo.
Originally built in the early 19th century, Egypt’s tram network extended through Central Cairo, Alexandria, Helwan and a few other governorates as an efficient mode of public transport that children used to take to schools, university students rode on their way home and some employees used on their daily commute.
Dr. Denise, who owns a pharmacy across from the tramline in Heliopolis, recalls that people would use the tram on route to her pharmacy to pick up medicine, but today she sees the tram’s carts coming and going with almost no one inside. “Now it’s just a lot of banging and noise over nothing,” she says.
Left with little to no up-keep, the tram quickly became an obsolete form of public transportation with its slightly over 15 kilometre per hour speed and broken down carts and railways.
Mohamed, who works at a local supermarket, and still uses the tram from time to time, jokes that there’s usually one other person there — the conductor — who’s always fast asleep.
Over the years, the tram’s long-extending tracks have been dismantled to make room for cars, taxis and microbuses in Cairo’s over congested traffic.
Ahmed al-Dorghamy, environmental consultant and co-founder of the NGO Green Arm, says that at the time the tram was built, quality of life was being taken into account in urban planning.
He added that this type of planning can still be witnessed in the area of Korba, where the sidewalks are wide, the buildings provide shading over the sidewalks and it’s an overall pedestrian-friendly area of Heliopolis.
As a result, cars were not all that necessary and public transport provided an alternative solution for longer distances.
“It was an important lesson that we should have learnt from the Heliopolis area,” he says.
But today, the streets of Heliopolis are far from perfect, with heavy traffic congestion.
Some of the tram’s tracks in the neighborhood have been taken apart and replaced with slender pavements to make way for traffic — in Thawra Street for example —while other areas have utilized the abandoned tracks for parking cars or for microbuses to load up passengers.
After completing the construction of a new bridge and new roads in Heliopolis, the government is set to begin working on a complete overhaul of the existing tram system — to replace it with new tracks and new carts. This will also include extending the tramline from Heliopolis all the way to the New Cairo settlements this year.
The project, according to the General Organization for Physical Planning, the national authority for urban planning, is divided into two phases. The first phase, worth $660 million, is set to be completed by 2016. It will develop the tramline and extend it into New Cairo by 30 kilometres. The second phase will extend the tramline within New Cairo itself, going all the way to the American University in Cairo through Road 90 and connecting to the Ring Road.
Yahia Shawkat, Housing and Land Rights researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, expressed concern that the new tramline will not extend to the low income areas of New Cairo, where people who rely on public transport are located, and instead serves areas that generally have people who can afford private transport.
“Why can’t we target both sectors; lower income levels in some areas, as well as higher income levels,” he asks.
On the other hand, Dorghamy believes that the new tramline will mainly target the higher-income residents of New Cairo in order to entice them to abandon their private vehicles and use public transportation instead, thereby resolving some of Cairo’s traffic congestion.
“[It] is always positive to solve congestion and air pollution that results from cars,” he says. Dorghamy believes that if the tram only targets low income commuters who generally use public transportation, then it will not create a shift in the issue of traffic congestion or pollution, since these commuters will still be traveling by microbuses or other means of affordable private transport as opposed to higher-income commuters, or car owners, who could have been driving, but are instead opting to use the tram.
“The issues of congestion and pollution are the issues of the rich, so you need to attract them to public transport,” says Dorghamy.
By targeting these issues, Dorghamy believes that the economic returns of the project, in terms of its social and economic impact, will be greater than its financial return.
The initiative is funded through loans from the World Bank and will be operated through a public-private partnership.
While Shawkat explains that Egypt has not yet had a public-private partnership in the public transport sector, it has a bad track record with these kinds of partnerships in other sectors, such as electricity and garbage removal.
Egypt has been promoting the use of public-private partnerships, especially in the field of infrastructure, since 2012 as a way to overcome the country’s economic shortcomings.
However, Shawkat believes that these types of partnerships end up doing more harm than good in the long run. “The state ends up being locked in long term deals that are a heavy burden on the budget,” he says.
Shawkat adds, “There is no local governance over these partnerships, so unless there is massive democratic reform then a public-private partnership will not work.”
Instead, he suggests that the state can invest in private modes of transportation that have proven to be efficient, such as the informal industry of microbuses.
Since there has been little to no maintenance of the tramline, Dorghamy laments that the project to renovate it is overdue. “Why did we wait until 2014 to upgrade? Why were there no repairs?” asks Dorghamy.
Judging by the lack of attention given to the previous tram system, he is concerned that the new one might also be abandoned and become obsolete after several years. “It was left to die, I don’t know why it was left to die,” he adds.
Dorghamy says that the government should learn from its mistakes and hold itself accountable for frequent maintenance of the trams, in order to keep them functioning.
For now, as weeds continue to grow along the tracks, garbage accumulates and street vendors take over the tram path, the pale green cart is barely making its way to Medhat, wobbling from side to side at a slow pace.