The train station in downtown Cairo is packed with passengers, the hum of conversation hangs in the air, late arrivals conspicuous by their hurried pace and fraught expressions.
An ordinary scene played out every day in cities across the world. But Tuesday in the Egyptian capital was no ordinary day, not least in recent times: this was the first day in two months that services were running from Mehattet Masr station.
The nation’s railways were closed on August 14 after the government declared the network a security risk in the aftermath of a crackdown on anti-coup protesters. Some services resumed late September, but only outside the capital.
On Tuesday, the government got limited services running again in Cairo, with some routes still closed. Nevertheless, those that have resumed are a lifeline for Egyptians who rely on this cheap and efficient means of getting around the country.
”We were paralyzed in the last two months, we couldn’t get anything done,” said Ahmed Abu Ghazi, who travels almost daily from Alexandria to Cairo for his work as a blacksmith.
”The train is the country’s soul, it’s lifeline…It’s the fastest and cheapest means of public transport that links Egypt’s governorates together.”
When the railways were closed, Abu Ghazi was forced to take a microbus to Alexandria – 220km northwest of Cairo -which that costs about $4, instead of the train which cost $1.
Eight trains ran on Tuesday from Cairo to Alexandria, and another eight back. Around double that number used to be operational before August.14. The service Abou Ghazi took was packed.
”As you can see, the train is flooding with passengers, we can barely stand,” he said, before poking his head out of the window for some air.
It is no wonder – Egypt’s railway service, when it is running, service moves 500 million passengers a year, or 1.37 million people a day, according to the railway authority’s website.
”The railway service should not have been shut down for more than two months,” said Mohamed Gamal, a tax officer who was travelling 92km from Beheira governorate to the capital. “I don’t think closing the railway for more 60 days ever happened – even in times of war.”
Indeed, during the January 25 revolt the toppled Hosni Mubarak, the railway service was closed for only 18 days.
Ashraf Abel Hamid, of Benha about 48km north of Cairo, said he found it tough without the option of travelling by train.
It takes two hours to get from Benha to Cairo with the microbus and two hours to get back…that's four hours of my life wasted.
”There were days where I didn’t have enough money to pay the microbus to get me to work in Cairo and I had to call in sick, ” he said.
Mohsen al-Maddawy, who owns his own woodshop, said he went late to work every day because the bus took much longer than the train.
”It takes me two hours to get from Benha to Cairo with the microbus and two hours to get back…that’s four hours of my life wasted,” he said.
“The train takes 30 minutes each time, saving me three hours that I get to spend with my wife and three children,” he added
But the resumption of services is only partial, and many routes out of Cairo are still closed – a fact many passengers would learn when they got to the station.
Souma Abdel Sattar went to the train station to travel to Sohag in Upper Egypt – 467km from Cairo – but railway employees told her the service was still down.
”I thought I was going to take the train and I didn’t bring enough money with me to take the microbus…but I have to now,” The disgruntled Abdel Sattar said.
”I’m so upset, the train saved us a lot of money and it’s much safer,” she said.
Protection over profit
Halting the railway service took its toll on the state’s budget as well as passengers.
Hussein Zakaria, the head of the railway authority, told al-Jazeera that it lost about $43 million in the two months of the network’s closure. He estimated about 40 percent of the network was now operating.
Angus Blair, founder of the Signet Institute, which specialises in economics, business and politics in the Middle East and North Africa, told Aljazeera that it was ”an added loss’ in an already difficult phase for Egypt’s economy.
However, Ahmed Ghoneim, an economics professor at Cairo University, said: ”The state’s security concerns are more important than money… if one person dies of a terrorist attack, this will have worse repercussions than any economic loss.”
Security has been increased at stations as a response to the risk of attack. Metal detectors and sniffer dogs are used to check passengers and trains.
Egypt’s interior ministry said that the closure was necessary to prevent attacks on the network. Last month, security forces said they removed three bombs from tracks between Suez and Ismailia governorates before they detonated and secured the location.
An interior ministry source denied that the real reason behind it the closure was preventing anti-coup protesters from moving around the country, saying that the protesters could travel by road if they wanted.
However, some passengers remained sceptical, and do not understand why the shutdown lasted so long.
”The government doesn’t want more people coming to Cairo to protest against the military coup,” said Heba Ibrahim, who travels often from Mahalla governorate to Cairo to visit her family.
“’The microbuses are searched a lot by security forces which makes it more difficult for anti-coup protesters to travel in them and many of them might not be able to afford the expensive fair,” she added.
Heba Ibrahim, who travels from Mahalla governorate to Cairo to visit her family, summed up the frustration many people have felt these past two months: “The people are tired…why take away their only cheap, comfortable lifeline across the country on top of everything else?”