How realistic is a rail connection between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean?

A rail alternative to the Suez Canal?

The blockade of the Suez Canal caused by the “Ever Given” container ship at the end of March impressively demonstrated this canal’s vulnerability as the “bottleneck” in international supply chains. But what could be done to resolve a momentous blockade if such a case were to happen again? Most recently, some experts have advocated an alternative option via rail, since Egypt is planning a high-speed rail link from Al Sokhna, directly at the southern canal entrance, to El Alamein on the Mediterranean. But how useful would such a connection be and how feasible is this plan if the largest container ships passing through the canal often carry over 20,000 containers?

Sensible routing connects hotspots

The high-speed route has already been in the planning stages for some time and in September 2020, an Egyptian-Chinese consortium of several companies was awarded the contract for its construction. Strikingly, this project once again shows China’s keen interest in becoming a major player in the implementation of large-scale infrastructure projects on the African continent. The link between Al Sokhna and El Alamein is a mega-project that will involve mainly passenger traffic. But after the Suez incident, the project was also considered as a freight link. Suddenly this was no longer just about effectively transporting locals and foreign visitors between the cultural hotspots of Alexandria and Cairo or the tourist centers along the Red Sea.

Major infrastructure project

It is expected that a total of nine billion US dollars will be invested in this project alone, which is considered the centerpiece of a comprehensive renovation and modernization initiative of the Egyptian rail system. To say that this system could use some improvement is an understatement. Furthermore, the projected line is considered the largest and longest railway route in the Middle East and the most significant rail project in Egypt since the first trains started rolling there in 1854. The trains running on this line are expected to reach speeds of up to 250 km/h. In addition, the involved Chinese companies will collaborate with the National Egyptian Railways Industry Company (NERIC) as part of the overall plan to locally manufacture the rail cars for the line in Port Said, a major industrial city directly on the Suez Canal. The German Siemens Mobility also played a role in the tendering.

An adequate replacement?

It’s unlikely, however, that the project will revolutionize freight transport around the Suez Canal. This project is primarily about the promotion or modernization of passenger transport as part of a broader investment and development program. Although this would certainly benefit freight traffic, the hypothetical replacement of transport on the Suez Canal is clearly a pipe dream and has never been seriously considered.
Even if the CEO of one of the relevant construction companies declared that the rail project could serve as an “inland Suez Canal” with a transit time of only three hours, it’s unrealistic to call it a rail alternative to the Suez Canal – and this for good reasons.

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By no means an alternative

A look at the bare figures alone reveals that this rail link will never reach the same importance. The stranded “Ever Given” usually transports more than 18,000 containers at a time, and it isn’t even one of the largest ships operating now. To transport the freight of such a ship by rail would require a considerable amount of train cars and locomotives. Even if you ignore the extreme cases of ultra-large container vessels in the megamax class (with a load capacity of almost 24,000 containers), the performance capacity offered by these proportions becomes strikingly evident.

On the other hand, the average ships traveling through the Suez Canal carry a smaller fraction of the usual amount of TEUs on megamax vessels. Lower volumes would be much easier to handle by rail. Provided that the right port infrastructure is available and the timetable offers enough connections that are met in time. But until this has reached a stage where this could be an efficient solution and even a relatively small ship could be replaced by several freight trains, a number of things must be considered. Shippers and logistics companies must take the total time for the reloading, loading and unloading into account. Even if this route takes three hours to complete, these other steps would require additional time. If any stopovers are also considered during the rail operation, the entire process from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean would take much more time than initially estimated. Whether this would ultimately be faster than the 12-hour passage of the Suez will have to be tested. The cost issue would also be a factor here.

No substitute – but a potential supplement

According to the project coordinators, the “Suez Canal on rails” could handle a maximum of five percent of the the volume of its seafaring counterparts. This means it would be of more interest to Egypt’s transportation industry and Al Sokhna could become an alternative to Alexandria. Alexandria still has the country’s largest sea port, which handles about 80% of Egypt’s foreign trade. But the new transshipment point at the southern entrance of the Suez Canal could create a new trade gateway that will not only connect both cities but also offer access to the capital Cairo and the conurbations of the North African country halfway along the route.

Another consideration that may be more unorthodox: An active and reliable rail connection could relieve the global supply chain in emergencies, for example, like the one during the March blockade. Even if this might not handle tens of thousands of containers, then at least the targeted transfer of certain urgently needed goods. It might allow more vulnerable freight to be transferred to rail at low costs so it can be shipped to its destination once it reached the Mediterranean. It’s difficult to say to which extent this idea would be feasible – at the moment, it seems more like a fantasy.

Upgrade for the region

But one thing is clear: for Egypt and North Africa, the project will be enormously important and might become a catalyst for African freight transport on rails – and this independently of the Suez Canal, megamax ships and exaggerated expectations.

The Suez Canal and the railway

  • As early as 1833, Muhammad Ali Pasha, Egypt’s ruler at that time, considered railway construction to facilitate transit between Europe and India. The tracks had already been purchased when pressure from France halted the project, since France had no interest in a project competing with the Suez Canal.
  • However, the decision to connect Alexandria and Cairo by rail came soon after. The first part of this route between Alexandria and Kafr az-Zayyat was opened in 1854 and the entire line followed two years later. This was the first rail line in Africa and the Middle East.
  • Starting in 1918, the Suez Canal was repeatedly crossed by railroad bridges. The first one was opened at the end of World War I and later demolished again, as it interfered with ship traffic. Subsequent bridges were repeatedly destroyed during conflicts.
  • The El Ferdan Bridge, rebuilt in 2001, is currently the longest railway swing bridge in the world. Because the new Suez Canal was opened slightly east of the bridge in 2014/2015 and it does not yet have a bridge connection, the railroad across the El Ferdan Bridge was shut down. Now the bridge is permanently open for ship traffic.
  • A second swing bridge with a similar design to connect to the closed segment has been under construction since 2019.
  • Two new rail tunnels below the canal are also in planning.