Eight railway employees in Egypt have been given prison sentences ranging from three to seven years over a deadly train crash south of Cairo last year.

The men, including two train drivers, conductors and signalmen, were convicted on Monday of involuntary manslaughter and negligence.

One of the train drivers was also convicted for being intoxicated when the two trains crashed into each other in Al Ayyat in October.

Eighteen people were killed in the accident, which happened after one train had stopped unexpectedly and failed to communicate the unscheduled stop. 

Al Jazeera's Rawya Rageh, reporting from Cairo, said the defendants and their colleagues described the ruling as unjust and blamed the railway system for the accident.

"[They said] the real culprit is the system, the railway authority that failed to provide these men with proper equipment to carry out their job, with proper means to alert authorities that such an accident was happening."

'Scape goats'

Hamdy al-Assiouty, a legal activist, said this was not the first case in which low-level employees had been used as scape goats.

"Time and again, low-level employees and technicians are put forward as scapegoats. But it is the system that failed them.

"The budget and repair workshops must be overhauled. Training must be looked into. You cannot just import computerised systems the drivers cannot use."

The crash last year prompted debates in Egypt's parliament over who should take the blame for accidents arising from an ailing transport network.

The October accident in Al Ayyat was the latest in a string of disasters that have plagued the Middle East’s largest railway network.

In 2002, also in Al Ayyat, more than 360 people were killed when fire ripped through seven carriages of an overcrowded train.

 In 2006, 58 people were killed and 140 injured when two trains collided north of Cairo.

Two years later, 44 people were killed after a lorry failed to stop at a crossing in northern Egypt.

Source: Al Jazeera