Much of the nation’s railroad heritage lies in various stages of neglect, rotting in sheds or sidings, or in poorly maintained museum displays. With an injection of funds, and a little imagination, Egypt’s railroad heritage could turn into quite an investment.
As I sat, anxiously waiting at the platform, my thoughts were pierced by the sound of a loud whistle. I turned, eager with anticipation, to see a large plume of puffing smoke getting closer and closer, until, finally, the mighty black form of a Stephenson Class 0-6-0 steam locomotive rolled gently into the station. It was hauling a train composed of a sleeper, salon/restaurant coach, a couchette coach and a baggage wagon. I climbed into the sleeper, and was immediately fascinated by the wooden interiors and plush leather chairs in the wagon’s salon. The conductor, wearing his red tarboush and a navy blue suit, courteously guided me to the cabin, which was furnished with two spacious green leather sofas and decorated with oil paintings depicting scenes from Upper Egypt.
As I relaxed near the window, the train started rolling out of the station into the Nile Valley, beginning its trip, and as it rolled down the tracks, puffing its smoke, I said to myself, ‘Ah, at last, the journey has started’.
You might expect this to be an account of an old train journey, perhaps from the late 1920s or early 1930s. But it’s not.
This journey is in the future, a journey that constitutes an integral part of a vision to save the decaying and fast-disappearing heritage of Egypt’s railroads.
It’s very likely that when travelling aboard the trains of the Egyptian National Railroads (ENR) you’ve glimpsed some old rolling stock (locomotives, passenger coaches, freight wagons) lying in a state of utter disrepair on the side tracks.
But did you ever wonder about their history or what the future could hold for them?
The story of Egypt’s railroads began in November 1851, during the reign of Abbas Hilmi I, when the Egyptian government, represented by Stephen Bek of the Viceroy’s Head of Foreign Affairs Office, and a representative of Robert Stephenson (son of George Stephenson, the inventor of the modern steam locomotive) signed a contract to build Egypt’s (and in fact Africa’s) first railroad line. According to the deal, Robert Stephenson was contracted by the Egyptian government to build a single railroad line between Alexandria and Cairo, and at a later stage, extend it to Suez.
Imagine a trip in which you could relive a 1920s railroad journey to one of Egypt’s numerous historic and touristic destinations.
Egypt’s railroad network then expanded slowly until it experienced its own mini version of the international railroad building boom during the reign of Khedive Ismail. I was at this point in time that most of the lines that still constitute the bulk of Egypt’s railroad network were built.
Throughout its 159 years of existence, the Egyptian Railroads purchased thousands of rolling stock units, including no less than one thousand steam locomotives. These locomotives, passenger coaches and freight wagons represent the story of the technical evolution of trains and railroads throughout history. They also provide a rare glimpse into Egyptian technical innovation as many were locally modified in the workshops of the Egyptian Railroads to suit local operating conditions, especially during the world wars when Egypt was cut off from its main railroad equipment suppliers. Thus, these trains not only give us a living example of the development of railroad technology, but also a rare glimpse into the first efforts to build a local railroad industry.
Sadly, this invaluable heritage is now almost completely gone. Most Egyptian steam locomotives were scrapped long ago; a fate shared by all the old diesel locomotives, most of the passenger coaches and freight wagons, and even Egypt’s once luxurious royal trains.
Currently, the sole surviving examples of Egypt’s once highly diverse train inventory are a single Stephenson Class 0-6-0 (the only surviving example of this type in the whole world), and the unique private train of Khedive Said – the first in a long line of luxury royal trains that served the Egyptian royal family, and even some of the presidents of the Egyptian republic, before being carelessly discarded with little regard for their historical value. Both of these trains are poorly housed within the premises of the long-neglected Egyptian Railway Museum.
Today, the remnants of Egypt ’s mighty fleet of trains are scattered in shambles throughout the country. Some await their turn to be scrapped, while the more fortunate are benefiting from the neglect of the ENR officials, thus enjoying some more years of survival, to the great satisfaction of local railroad enthusiasts like myself.
But how about creating an alternative destiny for this old rolling stock? What if these old trains were collected, their history documented and properly preserved?
This would allow the public and railroad enthusiasts alike the opportunity to see and ‘feel’ the history of railroad development in Egypt. It would also clearly document important aspects of modern Egyptian history: the development of one of Egypt’s most important economic institutions and the progress of local technical innovation and the efforts of the Egyptian railroad engineers to adapt foreign technologies to local operating conditions.
If properly renovated and preserved, these trains could be used to reenact historical trips. Imagine a trip in which you could recreate a 1920s railroad journey to one of Egypt’s numerous historic and touristic destinations. Not only would you enjoy the luxury of these old trains, but you would also relive the experience of classic railroad travel, complete with conductors wearing historically accurate uniforms, handing out replica tickets and stamping vintage travel documents.
Not Just a Fantasy
Is this some kind of fantasy project? No it is not.
‘Railroad tourism’ is actually very popular in various countries around the world. It is generally operated under the flashy label of ‘heritage railroads’ and generates astronomical profits for its operators. The experiences offered by these fascinating railroad tours range from enjoying a trip on the famous Zambezi Steam Express in the South African hinterland, to historical train rides on the narrow gauge steam trains of the island of Java and scenic journeys in the Scottish countryside on the historical Flying Scotsman Express.
Preservation, however, is not a completely alien concept in Egypt. If you happen to visit Alexandria you’ll find a single car tram dating back to 1931. The wagon, which was withdrawn from service in 1975, was beautifully restored by the enlightened officials of the Alexandria Public Transportation Authority, and now runs regular round trips starting from al-Raml terminus.
This dream is part of a wider vision to preserve the heritage of Egypt’s railroads, which not only includes old rolling stock, but also thousands of photos, documents and models that tell their story. The focal point of this dream is to save the treasure chest that houses all of these artefacts: The Egyptian Railway Museum.
The museum contains a unique collection of trains (as mentioned above), hundreds of models and exhibits, and thousands of documents (including the original contract for building the first railroad line in Egypt), all of which are of extreme importance not only to the history of railways in Egypt, but also to that of the world. The museum also contains a unique collection of photos, which provide a rare glimpse into Egyptian life throughout the twentieth century. Sadly, most of these photos are printed on glass exhibits that aren’t well maintained . Some are broken, while the photos on others are slowly fading.
This unique and highly specialized museum – founded in 1933 on the occasion of the International Railroad Congress in Egypt – is the first of its kind in the Middle East and Africa, and is suffering from almost complete neglect. ENR officials, who are occupied with the daily problems of the infamous Egyptian railroads, are reluctant to spend a penny on the museum, citing financial constraints. Though it could never be denied that the ENR is suffering from financial difficulties and immense pressure, the museum and the old rolling stock could undoubtedly provide a significant, albeit unusual, source of income that, if properly exploited, could increase the annual income of the ENR. This, in turn, would help fund the much needed maintenance and upgrading projects.
In short, a better understanding and knowledge of our history could be of cultural, as well as financial benefit. Instead of axing our history, we should use it to benefit our present and our future, thus turning it from a burden, hurriedly being scrapped, into an income generator that doubles as a source of intellectual and cultural enlightenment. The longer we wait, the less of this unique heritage there will be to save. If action is not taken soon, we may find that the opportunity has long since pulled away along the tracks, never to return, its only remnants being as tangible as a plume of smoke disappearing slowly into the sky.
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Amr Nasr El-Din holds a PhD in European Studies and International Relations from Universität Osnabrück, Germany. He is currently a diplomat at the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and has initiated a general awareness campaign to save the Egyptian Railway Museum and preserve the old Egyptian National Railroad's rolling stock.