Egypt’s British-founded rail system comprises more than 5000km of track connecting almost every major city and town (but not Sinai). The system is antiquated, cars are often grubby and battered, and there have been some major accidents recently, including a crash near Alexandria in August 2017 that left at least 41 dead and 179 injured. Aside from on two main routes (Cairo–Alexandria, and Cairo–Aswan, both of which have modern rolling stock), you have to be fond of trains to prefer them to a deluxe bus. But for destinations near Cairo, trains win because they don’t get stuck in traffic.
For specific schedules, consult the Egyptian Railways (https://enr.gov.eg) website, where you can also purchase tickets.
1st (darga ula) Preferable if you’re going any distance. Air-con (takyeef), padded seats, relatively clean toilet, tea and snack service from a trolley.
2nd (darga tanya) Seats are battered vinyl. Skip air-con if it’s an option – it often doesn’t work well. Toilets aren’t well kept.
3rd (darga talta) Grimy bench seats, glacial pace and crowds, but lots of activity and vendors. Be prepared for attention – you’ll probably be the most exciting thing on the train.
Route The private company Watania Sleeping Trains, also now known as Ernst, runs daily sleeper services from Cairo to Luxor and Aswan.
Tickets Reasonably priced, usually including two meals. Reservations must be made before 6pm the day of departure, but should really be done at least a few days ahead.
Compartments Spanish- or German-built two-bed sleepers: seats convert to a bed, and an upper bunk folds down. Clean linen, pillows and blankets, plus a small basin with running water. Beds are a bit short. Middle compartments, away from doors, are quieter. Shared toilets are generally clean and have toilet paper. Air-con can get chilly at night.
Meals Serviceable airline-style dinners and breakfasts are served in the compartments. A steward serves drinks (sometimes including alcohol), and there’s a club car.
Day trains Security rules come and go, but at the time of writing tourists could ride all-day trains south of Cairo. The best is number 980, the express departing Cairo at 8am; it's an enjoyable 10½ hours to Luxor and 14 to Aswan, with views of lush plantations and villages along the way.
Night trains (nonsleepers) There are four-to-five night services to Luxor and Aswan daily. Seats recline, are comfortable enough to get a decent sleep in, and are far cheaper than the Watania Sleeper Train. The day trains, though, are much more scenic.
The best trains on the Cairo–Alexandria route are speedy ‘Spanish’ (esbani) trains. Almost all of them go direct, or with just one stop, in 2½ hours. ‘French’ (faransawi) trains are less comfortable and make more stops. Both count as 1st class with air-con, though, so specify Spanish when booking. Ordinary trains on this route are very basic and slow.
The rail system is most extensive in the agricultural region north of Cairo, as it was built to bring cotton to market. If you’re headed anywhere in this area, train is ideal for speed and scenery, though the 1st-class services run only four or five times a day.
For the summer holiday season, Watania runs a night sleeping-car train from Cairo to this Mediterranean resort town, three days a week from mid-June to mid-September.