Egypt's trains falter; microbuses fill the gap

An Egyptian man sits on a bench at a train station outside the presidential palace in Cairo on December 12, 2012.

Egypt's protests have lessened for now, but the country is still suffering the economic consequences of violence that left hundreds dead following the military's ouster of deposed president Mohamed Morsi. Cairo's streets, usually bustling at all hours, are now empty overnight due to a government-imposed curfew.

One sector feeling the effects of the ongoing state of emergency: transportation. Egypt's railways have been suspended for weeks, meaning passengers are left to find other ways to travel. Some people still show up at Cairo's central train station, surprised to find doors locked and blocked by police. Neither they, nor a customer service representative answering the railway's hotline, have much information for frustrated customers.

We still don't know when it will open,” said the man answering the Egyptian National Railways (ENR) hotline. “You'll find out from the TV.”

ENR says it's lost more than 10 million dollars due to the suspension, and much of that business is going to microbus drivers. Just outside the train station, there's a hectic depot where drivers of the small minvans shout out their destinations, trying to lure thwarted train passengers.

One woman, who didn't want to give her name, trudged away from the closed station, only to be set upon by drivers offering to take her to her intended destination -- the coastal city of Alexandria.

It's ok for me to take the bus in these circumstances we are living,” she said. “But before this, I prefer the train.”

The microbus drivers may be getting more customers, but some, like 30-year-old Mohamed Hassan, said they're not really making much more money.

After the protests, things started to get better,” he said, reclining on one of the three rows of red pleather seats in his white microbus.

But,” he added, “The influence of the curfew is that passengers are no longer travelling at night.” That means he has less time to make trips, and fewer people are traveling.

That restriction is also affecting businesses. Robert Tashima, Africa Regional Editor for the Oxford Business Group, says about 90 percent of goods in Egypt are shipped by road, many of which are now clogged by checkpoints.

When you're unable to ship products overnight,” he said, “when you've got highways and motorways and bridges that are blocked, you will obviously have a direct impact in terms of the cost of shipping products and your revenues.”

Botht eh public and the private sectors are feeling the impact of this seizure in the transportation system. One local shipping company told state media here it was losing 50 percent of its revenues each day during the worst of the curfew. Egypt's metro system is also losing money... about $70,000 a day when the curfew is at it strictest.

 The government is responding by pushing the curfew back to 11 p.m.-6 a.m., from the original 7  p.m.-6 a.m. in mid-August. The exception is Fridays, a traditional “protest day” here, when people still have to be inside by 7 p.m.

Despite all the short-term losses, Oxford Business Group's Tashima expects things to eventually calm down for businesses.

While Egypt won't suddenly find itself seeing double-digit growth anytime in the next 24 months,” he said, “Certainly the potential for long-term growth remains fairly unabated.”

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