Egypt’s Ministry of International Cooperation (MOIC) along with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) announced that the recently-abandoned Cairo tram line in the Heliopolis neighborhood is getting a $250 million loan to bring it back to life. This marks a 180-degree shift in what the government has previously planned for the worn out Heliopolis tram, which was deemed it as “outdated” and left to rot, even going as far as tearing out the tracks over the last couple of years. Established in 1910 – a heyday in Cairo’s urban development – the tram came to a slow halt between 2013 and 2015, so the news of its revival just months later certainly came as a surprise for a city that rapidly sprawled with sattellite cities over the last three decades.
Once Iconic, Now Abandoned
“The tram holds a lot of my childhood memories,” Menna Khater, who resides in Heliopolis, recalls of the once-functioning tram. “I used to take it at least once a week when I visited my grandmother,” she says, adding that she even relied on it during her college days as her main means of transport.
Nada Nader, a 23-year-old, did not ride public transport often but whenever she went to Heliopolis, she would use the tram. She says that even though it was “extremely slow,” it was better than being stuck in traffic. “Using a slow tram was better than waiting in a car that doesn’t move at one traffic light for over 30 minutes. I’d rather take the cheap ride in a tram that is relatively clean,” she explains, pointing to the megacity’s notorious road congestion.
The last imported tram carts were delivered to Cairo around 30 years ago and since then, the carts have not seen any upgrades. “The only renovations that I witnessed was the paint job done every couple of years,” says Khater. The barely-functioning tram continued its slowdown and eventually stopped after the government decided to retire the streetcar of its services between 2014 and 2015. The adamant decision was followed by dismantling and removing of the tram rails. New layers of asphalt paved the way for cars and other means of public transport. Even where tracks remained, motorists took their abandonment as a sign to use the road for cars.
Professor of Transportation at Cairo’s Ain Sham University Mohamed Balah, explains that poor planning and lack of foresight has hindered the way the capital moves, highlighting that defunct transportation systems should not be destroyed but rather developed. “Neglect and lack of maintenance would lead any means of transport to be outdated. The system would not have failed if it was operated correctly.” The transportation expert adds that the real problem occurs after a means of transport is deemed outdated.“The infrastructure gets totally destroyed. What once cost money gets thrown away and no one answers to this destruction.”
Balah points to Youssef Abbas Street, a well-known street in the Heliopolis area which changed for the worse after the tram rails were removed. A bus lane was put in place – a rare sight in Cairo – but prior to its completion, it was destroyed to increase space for privately-owned vehicles. “There is no clear vision and the country is paying the price. Officials should be responsible for the bad as well as the good.”
The Trams Lands Finances
Last year, the ownership of the Heliopolis tram was transferred from the National Authority for Tunnels (NAT) to the Cairo governorate and Public Transportation Authority. The decision came as part of the tram’s development plan and to establish an electrified train that will be in accordance to international standards. Officials from the NAT and the Cairo governorate offices could not be reached for comment on the sudden change of heart.
The tram has been given another financial chance as the EBRD pledges a $250 million loan for its renovation between Ramsis and Almaza areas. The total cost of the project is expected to be $500 million. “The EBRD expects to provide an investment package of $250 million divided in two tranches,” the bank said in an official statement. “A sovereign loan of up to US$ 125 million would finance infrastructure works to be implemented by the National Authority for Tunnels [NAT].”
The EBRD continues that the second tranche will also amount to $125 million and will be given to a private company. The company will be responsible for “the procurement of rolling stock and for the operation and maintenance of the fleet.” The bank will assist Egypt is raising grants to help implement the project while its project implementation arm, EBRD Infrastructure Project Preparation Facility (IPPF), will also fund the project’s design and feasibility study.
The EBRD states that its contribution is a continuation of the bank’s engagement with enhancing the transport sector in Cairo, which “lacks integration of transport modes.” During the signing ceremony, Minister of International Cooperation Sahar Nasr said that the project is vitally important for Cairo.
A Renaissance of Public Transport… But at What Cost?
Nasr’s words reflect the government’s growing interest in redeveloping public transportation, however budgetary issues have meant that the EBRD’s is not the only loan sought by Egypt in an attempt to get the capital moving. In 2012, the government was provided a $393 million loan from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to fund the underground metro’s fourth line.
Alleged corruption and lack of clear vision can hinder the development process, however. Local business newspaper AlBorsa reported that European Investment Bank (EIB) postponed tenders for the €940 million third phase of Cairo’s third metro line. The EIB’s decision followed a incident that allegedly features the NAT’s CFO receiving a bribe form one of the private companies that are participating in the tender. The case can notably hinder the project, which is mainly financed with €300 from the French Development Agency and €600 from the EIB.
Another project that was highly propagated during the past two years is the high-speed train, which will connect satellite cities such as 10th of Ramadan City Obour City and Shorouk City and on to the metro. In November 2014, former Transportation Minister Hany Dahy told local newspaper Daily News Egypt that China provided a $1.2 billion soft loan for the project.
Less than a year ago, his successor Saad Al-Geioushy announced that an investment agreement should have been signed with a Chinese company by December 2015. The then-minster refused to disclose the volume of investment and the project has not seen the light of day, yet.