Videos posted on social media showed passengers coated with dust and debris, walking in a daze inside derailed and mangled train carriages.
“Help us, help us, people are dying,” one man yells in anguish in one of the videos.
Egypt’s Transportation Ministry said the trains collided after passengers pulled the emergency brakes of the first train, causing it to stop and get hit by the second train traveling in the same direction behind it.
Egypt’s public prosecutor has launched an investigation into the crash, while the prime minister has offered roughly $6,300 to the families of the deceased and up to just over $2,500 for those injured.
Friday’s collision immediately brought scrutiny to Egypt’s rail system, one of the oldest in the world and largest in the region. Construction on the first railway line in Egypt, between Alexandria and Kafr Eassa, began in 1851.
Even with the disruption caused by the coronavirus, 1.4 million passengers per day used the nation’s trains and metro network, Egypt’s Transportation Ministry said last April.
Major accidents with fatalities are common. Data released by Egypt’s official statistics agency showed 1,657 train accidents in 2017, up from 1,249 the year before.
“Rail accidents have plagued Egypt for years as infrastructure has decayed,” said Timothy Kaldas, an analyst with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “The current government has invested heavily in upgrades, but scale of the problem is enormous.”
Kaldas noted that the transportation minister was put in place after a rail accident forced his predecessor to resign.
President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi wrote on Facebook that anyone who was found to have caused Friday’s accident through neglect or corruption will be punished, without exception.
“The pain that tears our hearts today cannot but make us more determined to end this type of disasters,” Sissi wrote.
Train crashes resulting in mass casualties have been a regular occurrence in Egypt for decades. The most deadly event took place in 2002, when a fire tore through an overcrowded passenger train traveling through El-Ayyat and killed at least 260 people.
Sissi has repeatedly pledged to upgrade services after accidents and has pushed for new train technology across the country.
In January, Egypt signed a memorandum of understanding with Germany’s Siemens for construction of a $23 billion high-speed train line that would run from Ain Sokhna on the Red Sea to New Alamein on the Mediterranean coast.
The line would pass through a new capital city being built east of Cairo.
Taylor reported from Washington. Heba Farouk Mahfouz in Cairo contributed to this report.