As I hop on the Wednesday night Upper Egypt train from Cairo, I hear a newbie ask when we will get to Aswan — my destination and the end of the line.
His question is met with collective laughter from a group of old Nubian men who seem to make the trip often. One of them answers: “You just relax and don’t even ask this question, we will get off when the train lets us go.”
The man seems to have made his peace with the uncertainty that comes with the deal whenever you decide to use the Egyptian railway system, with all its downfalls and peculiarities.
Egypt prides itself on having one of the oldest railways in the world, founded in the 1800s. However, the railway that was once a cause for pride has decayed into an embarrassing testament to negligence and corruption.
Catastrophic train accidents have become regular occurrences, especially on the Upper Egypt line, which is in the worst shape.
The most deadly was the Upper Egypt train fire in 2002, which killed more than 350 passengers.
During my trip, I experience first hand the incompetence of the system that was behind most of these accidents.
Almost every time I take the train to Upper Egypt, it either breaks down or gets delayed because another train has broken down and is blocking the tracks. The latter was the reason for a two-hour delay on the way to Aswan, bringing the time of the trip to 15 hours.
Another source of suffering is the annoying behavior that inexplicably seems to be okay in the railway’s unwritten code of conduct. Several passengers blast their music for the whole wagon to listen to, and fast-paced Nubian songs mashed together do not exactly create a relaxing background to the long trip. The fact that no one seems to mind makes me reluctant to complain.
Still, the first leg of the trip is relatively stress free, in comparison to the chaotic return trip.
It isn’t a big surprise when, a little over an hour out of Aswan, the train, again, stops in the middle of nowhere. So unsurprising that it barely provokes a response.
Only an hour after the train stops, people start asking what’s wrong. It seems an hour’s wait is too normal to stir a reaction.
We are informed the train has broken down and that we’re waiting for parts from the closest station. This seems satisfactory enough. As the stop stretches on for two hours, no impatient questions are fired at the train guards, no annoyed silences even, people just continue with their upbeat chatter.
For frequent passengers of the Upper Egypt train, a two-hour delay is no cause for uproar, it’s routine.
Just like with the loud music, I am left feeling unreasonable and spoiled for being the only one who seems to mind.
What makes matters even more frustrating is that the lack of funding — the one size fits all excuse that officials in Egypt use to explain failures — is not the reason why the trains are left barely functional. Year after year, rights groups have tracked the Railway Authority’s huge budget, and the loans it receives, and warned that this never materializes into work on the ground.
In 2013, the Railway Authority received US$600 million in loans from the World Bank, specifically allocated for the development of the railroads. This never happened, according to a report by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights. That same year, the authority returned 25 percent of its budget as surplus, despite the dire need for improvement in basically all sectors.
While the passengers don’t challenge the habitual break down on my journey, the commotion comes mostly from the guards, who complain to each other that the delay is the responsibility of some official at the station who insisted on slow bureaucratic measures, or the driver who left before examining the train.
One guard finally hops back on, panting, announcing that the parts are on the way and that he had to run most of the way to the closest station to request them.
This absolute lack of protocol for such a common problem is just a manifestation of the chaotic manner in which the railway system is managed. This chaos not only leads to frequent accidents, but also allows for any manageable mishap to escalate into the catastrophic scale of the Upper Egypt train fire in 2002, while the people in charge are running in circles trying to come up with a plan on the spot.
The fragility of the railway system came under the spotlight following another tragic accident in 2012. Fifty-two children were killed when a train collided with a school bus near an Assiut village.
The ensuing inquiries revealed that, due to a lack of technology to manage railway crossings, a worker is stationed at every crossing to receive a call from the station when a train leaves.
The little guys are always the ones who take the blame for the failing system.
Crossing workers revealed they had filed several official complaints before the accident regarding incidents in which they had received no phone call and were left with seconds to clear the tracks on hearing a train approaching.
I heard someone say recently that the frequency of train accidents in Egypt is not bizarre, but that rather every train that makes it safely is a miracle.
This saying is playing on repeat in my head as the train finally starts moving another hour later, still not fully operational, going slowly and making several shorter stops until it finally chugs into Luxor station.
Due to the delay, I miss the bus I was supposed to take from Luxor to Cairo as I could only find seats on the train from Aswan to Luxor.
I get off the train and can’t find tickets for the next morning. Eventually, I decide my best option is to get back on the same train, which for some reason, although it is already over two hours late, is still in the station half an hour later.
But it means I will travel back with a severely diminished status. Other than first and second class, there is a more important class system in the train: There are those who have reserved seats and those who haven’t.
When the seats on the train are sold out, you’re still allowed to get on and buy tickets on the spot. However there are no guarantees that you will find a seat. Most seats are only taken for a portion of the trip, so when you buy a ticket on board you alternate between seats that become available throughout the trip.
The fate of those who fail to find a seat is pitiful. They end up standing in the space between wagons, which is much colder than the rest of the already freezing train.
I take an empty seat and hold my breath at every station, hoping that its legitimate occupant will not get on. The dreaded moment arrives a few stops later.
Thankfully, as I am about to get out, a fellow traveler offers me a spare ticket.
There is a system of solidarity in the train, maybe created by the fact that the trip ends up being a kind of ordeal that the passengers go through together. When a passenger is getting off the train with a few stops left on his/her ticket, they usually find an elderly passenger without a seat and offer it to them.
However the tiring trip brings out the worst in some.
A guy in his twenties asks an old man, barely able to walk, to get out of his seat when he gets on with his all-empowering numbered ticket. The same guy also turns away a pleading old lady with a little girl asking for his seat later in the trip and goes back to sleep without flinching.
I wish I had no knowledge of the state of the bathrooms, and I do my best to avoid them. After refusing to venture in there for the whole trip, at the expense of considerable suffering, I finally cave less than an hour away from Cairo, when I start to doubt that I will be able to walk off the train.
It is as much of a terror as I imagine. Everything in the unisex little cubicle is made of severely rusted metal and the stench is, well, as bad as can be expected.
It’s hard to believe that the toilet is for use and is not some abandoned historic relic.
The only thing that’s regular about the train is the guards’ rounds after every stop to check tickets. They have no problem violently shaking passengers’ legs and shoulders to wake them up.
But they’re not only checking for tickets. One guard makes a formidable scene when he catches two passengers kissing, providing some much needed entertainment close to the end of the trip.
After yelling at them to show their IDs, he goes into full father-of-a-teenager mode, yelling for everyone to hear: “Do you want me to tell everyone what I saw? I saw you two kissing and hugging. I’ve been watching your reflection in the window, I saw your lips on her lips.”
Eventually, the man takes the guard aside and somehow manages to calm his wounded sensitivities.
I get out of the train with the same sense of defeated acceptance expressed by the Nubian man who answered the blissfully ignorant passenger at the start of my trip.
The state of the railway in Egypt is just too pathetic to bother getting angry about. If you need to use it, you just have to do it knowing that the time of your arrival is not something you will know in advance and hope that you’re never in a situation where your life depends on the timely and effective response of the people in charge.