For more than a century the Heliopolis metro has been an eyewitness to the evolution of Cairo, Egypt’s capital city. Established in 1910 to link the then newly-founded Cairo suburb of Heliopolis to the capital, it has been fondly known as, simply, ‘the metro’.
Heliopolis was founded at the outset of the 20th century by the Belgian entrepreneur Baron Edouard Empain who created it on desert land east of Cairo, constructed Moorish-style buildings, a hotel, a church, and all that is necessary to spawn a full-fledged modern town. And to link that town with its mother city, Baron Empain established the metro, an electric tram the carriages of which were painted in characteristic blue and off-white. Heliopolis throve and grew to become a sprawling off-shoot of Cairo, complete with all the amenities that form a distinctive mostly up-scale suburb. And the metro remained the most important link that connected it to the capital. By 1972 the metro railways and stations covered all the four corners of the suburb and were used by some 2 million commuters. It gained fame as a clean, prompt, practical way to connect to main Cairo.
Cairo itself grew in the meantime, mushrooming to become home to some 14 million inhabitants. In the 1980s, an underground metro network had to be built in Cairo to accommodate the increasingly growing number of commuters. The underground was labelled the ‘metro’, the first sign it would begin robbing the original Heliopolis metro of its time-honoured prestige. Henceforth, many Cairenes, especially those of the younger generation who did not remember the original metro in its full glory, resorted to call the Heliopolis metro the ‘tram’.
At the same time, the condition of the Heliopolis metro lines deteriorated sadly, to the point that today it is widely regarded as an obsolete form of public transport. Even so, many Egyptians continued to use it as a means to avoid congestion and because of the low fares.
A recent decision by the government to retire the old metro out of service has caused passions among Heliopolis residents to run high. As the old rails were being dismantled and removed, Watani rushed over to capture a snapshot of the latest scene in Heliopolis.
Some of the original metro tracks in the neighbourhood—in Thawra Street, for instance—have been removed and replaced with slender pavements to make way for the heavier traffic, while abandoned tracks in other areas are being used as car parks or microbus stops.
Only a very small stretch of a few hundred metres of metro line was still in operation, and likely to be removed soon enough.
What will the poor do?
Ali Mahmoud, a Heliopolis street vendor, told Watani that the metro had been a fast means of transport that saved time for travellers, especially those who lived in the nearby overpopulated districts of Ezbet al-Nakhl and Mattariya, and depended on Heliopolis for a livelihood.
“We are stunned that the metro is being taken away,” he said. “The neighbourhood is bound to change beyond recognition. It will never be the same.”
“In my personal case,” Nisrene Mahmoud who is a teacher living in Zeitoun told Watani, “I didn’t use the metro much. Because the ticket cost a mere 50 piastres (EGP0.5), the metro was usually overcrowded in the mornings. This meant it served a large sector of people. I pity those who have no other option, especially poorer students.”
Ahmed, a passenger, agrees. “Unfortunately, removing the old metro has harmed the poor. After it was removed they have no affordable alternative. They have to use the bus, where a ticket costs some EGP2.5.”
Two preparatory school students, Ahmed Sameh and Muhammad Abdel-Ghani, say that, after the removal of the metro the roads have become more crowded. “Plus we can’t find any other adequate alternative transport,” they say. “We have to go to school on foot, which means we frequently arrive late and get marked as absent.” Other students from primary schools in the same area also arrive at school late and agree that they are at their wits’ end.
Good old days
Haj Muhammad al-Harriry, who lives in Helmiyat al-Zeitoun, recalls the good old days. “My family has lived here since 1970, and I have many memories of the time before the good old metro was extended to our neighbourhood in 1972. We used to ride public transport buses to Cairo’s main central railway station in Ramses Square then board a train to Bab al-Louq. Now the new underground metro has replaced this line.”
A fruit vendor from the same area, Haj Mahmoud, was born in 1952. Some 20 years later, the metro was extended to his neighbourhood. “The ticket was just for a few piastres [One Egyptian Pound equals 100 piastres]. It underwent several increases till it, in the 2000s, it was raised to 50 piastres.”
The most recent metro cars were imported into Egypt thirty years ago, in 1985. Since that date, there have been neither renovations nor maintenance, and there were even no spare parts. Originally there were 50 carriages; now there are only 30: the rest are unserviceable.
“The old metros are worn out and will soon be unable to carry on in the service of what remains of Heliopolis metro,” says Fawzy Muhammad, who has been a metro driver since 1983. “This is why the government has halted the metro service in Heliopolis.
“We were 40 drivers, plus conductors. We have been redirected to work in government-owned garages, or as bus conductors.”
Former conductor Mahmoud Hussein, 33, described a workday after the metro closed. “Our days now have become meaningless; we do nothing all day long. Before the decision to retire the old metro, we used to each conduct between EGP300 and EGP400 a day.”
Adel Kamal is a technical manager at the metro authority. He notes that when the metro line belonged to the Heliopolis Company for Housing and Development, it was regularly maintained and renovated. “But in 1992 it was moved to the Public Transport Authority of Cairo, which has not given it any care. Some spare parts were even lost or stolen,” Mr Kamal says. “It has become invalid for use. It is now being taken to pieces and sold for scrap, even though one carriage costs no less than EGP20 – 30 million.”
According to General Hisham Attiya, former head of the Public Transport Authority, no new cars have been put into service in the Heliopolis metro for some 30 years; this is why the current ones are out of service. “To renovate and maintain the current lines and cars would represent a heavy burden on the State budget. Putting the metro back into service is economically unfeasible,” he says. It is no secret that the economic condition in Egypt is suffering after five years of turmoil and terrorist war following the 2011 Arab Spring, and the government is strapped for cash.
The official spokesman for Cairo governorate, Khaled Mustafa, says the Heliopolis metro was retired because the service had become rife with problems and it was virtually unworkable to bring it back on its feet. The result was that there were stoppages and frequent delays on the lines, and in many cases there was misuse by the public. Mr Mustafa says the Mattariya line has now been removed and the road widened, which helped solve the traffic congestion in the district. This, he says, is definitely in the better interest of the public, since the old metro line had become practically unusable.
“As an alternative, and to facilitate conditions for the public, a number of public transport buses have been routed along the former metro route after the streets were widened,” he added. “The average ticket price is EGP1.”
Usama Uqail, professor of roads and bridges at Ain Shams University, believes that removing the Heliopolis metro is an irresponsible decision and a big mistake, and therefore the officials concerned should be questioned. “The metro is a means of public transport; it should be promoted or renovated, not simply scrapped,” Dr Uqail says.
“Instead of trying hard to find an adequate solution to the problems that made the old metro lines so hard to maintain in good working condition,” he says, “the transport authority has simply ordered them removed. Unfortunately, there is no clear official strategy towards development, and matters are dealt with in a shallow way, just like using painkillers. In my opinion, the decision to do away with the Heliopolis metro is a haphazard one that will breed grave problems. For starters, Heliopolis is bound to experience unprecedented traffic jams.”
The final situation on the ground, however, is that the Heliopolis metro is being taken out of service because it had declined so poorly and there is simply no money available to put it back on track. For the average Egyptian, the words of Dr Uqail sum up the entire matter: “The Heliopolis metro is heritage; how can it simply be done away with?”
27 January 2016