So why is Egypt building a new capital city right next to Cairo?

A model of the proposed city (we're assuming the web address won't loom quite so large on the finished article). Image: Getty.

According to the highly reliable source that is Wikipedia, Egypt has had 29 capital cities over the past 5,000 years. The incumbent, Cairo, has been in place since 950 AD, so, in the scheme of things, it was due a change-up. 

Perhaps that's why, last week at an economic development conference, the Egyptian government announced it was planning a giant new building project to the east of Cairo. The new city, which could eventually cover 700 km sq, doesn't currently have a name, and is being referred to simply as "The Capital" (we're really hoping this is a Hunger Games reference).

If all goes to plan, the city will serve as the new administrative and financial capital of Egypt. Amazingly, the ministry claims that development could be finished within five to seven years, and construction on the road that will link the two cities has already begun. 

You could be forgiven for being a little confused as to why a country would shift its capital of over a thousand years 50km to the east, seemingly for the hell of it. Here are a few reasons the project looks so appealing to the Egyptian government . 

Cairo is full

The population of Cairo's larger metropolitan area is nearing 20m, and, as a result, it's one of the most congested cities on earth: the World Bank estimated in 2010 that traffic costs amount to about 4 per cent of Egypt's entire GDP

In this sense, the new development could be seen as an extension of the old city, to cut down on overpopulation and congestion. The housing ministry claims the capital could house up to 7m people; the initial plans include 1.1m residences, 1,250 mosques and churches, and 663 hospitals. That said, "New Cairo", a relatively new development to the east, was built for millions of residents, but is still only home to a few hundred thousand.

Still, Cairo's population is expected to double over the next 40 years, so a new satellite city does make some kind of sense. But why move the country's capital too? 

The president wants to make a statement

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was elected president in June 2014, and subsequently told the Egyptian people to prepare for the "hard work phase" in their country's recent history, to help the country's economy recover from the effects of the 2011 revolution. That revolution played out in old Cairo, and centred on Tahrir square, the site of many of Cairo's current administrative buildings. 

Mubarak, Egyptian president between 1981 and 2011, actually tried to build a new capital too during his own tenure, but that project failed. If Sisi can succeed, and physically move the government away from the ghosts of the revolution to boot, it'll show he can overcome Egypt's previous setbacks and political tensions and move the country – and, hopefully, its economy – forward. 

Image: Getty.

The Egyptian governemnt may not have to pay for it

The government has hired a Dubai-based real estate investment fund, headed by Emirati Mohamed Alabbar, the man behind the Burj Khalifa, to raise funds for the project and build it. By the end of last week's conference, around $12bn had been pledged by Gulf-based investors, which is over a quarter of the total (that's if the project stays within budget, of course).

The Egyptian people must be hoping for big foreign investment, too: Sisi has already cut food and energy subsidies and raised fuel prices to help the country's ailing economy, which has led some to criticise the announcement of a grand new city project while Egypt's poorest go hungry. 

The Suez canal is getting wider

Another important factor is the city's location: it will lie between Cairo and the Suez Canal, with its profitable trade routes. Under a new expansion project, the Egyptian government is expanding the canal, to allow boats to sail in both directions at once (it goes both directions at the moment, but along most of its length its only wide enough to go one way at once), potentially doubling the trade revenue generated. 

Here's the planned location, a short hop from both New Cairo and El Shorouk city (the two blobs just to the north of the new capital). 

This will bring the city much closer to the canal,  using up what is at present just a stretch of desert: 

It's been done before

...though not particularly successfully. Malaysia moved parts of its central governemnt from Kuala Lumpur to the newly built Putrahaya in 1999, while in 2005 the Burmese government shifted from Yangon to the brand new city of Naypyidaw (though that city is reportedly still half empty). Egypt, meanwhile, has built over 20 "new towns" over the past half century, most of which are still very sparsely populated. Looks like President Sisi has a real job on his hands. 

 
 
 
 

What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.