The railways in Lebanon
Let the train take the strain
by Peter Speetjens
Special to The Daily Star, Fri Jul 17, 1998
Courtesy of The Daily Star
The railway today
The derelict railway line between Beirut and Chtaura could be
transformed into a road reserved for lorries as a temporary solution
to the mounting traffic congestion between the capital and Damascus.
But the measure would come as a blow to train enthusiasts, who see
it as confirmation of the government's unwillingness to rejuvenate the
country's once thriving rail network, which has been out of service
since the war. Environment minister Akram Chehayeb's technical
adviser, Zahi Abu Mansour, said the minister had suggested the change
of use at a parliamentary meeting last month as a solution to traffic
accidents on the Damascus highway. He repeated the proposal at a
commemoration in Aley for two victims of a road accident.
"Every day of delay means more accidents, more deaths," the
minister said. "Transforming the former railway into a road for
lorries would cost about $70m. This should be seen as a temporary
solution, until the $350m for the Arab highway to Damascus is ready."
Asked why the ministry did not immediately push for the more
environmentally friendly option of revitalising the railways, Mansour
said: "Chehayeb spoke first of all as an MP for Aley and secondly as
the minister of environment. Despite its many environmental
advantages, the restoration of the railways is currently not a
realistic option." Lebanon was part of the first rail network in the
region but its 75 years of development was completely derailed after
just two years of civil war.
With most locomotives, wagons and tracks destroyed, and despite
positive noises from politicians and participants at two international
train conferences held here last year, the former deputy
director-general of the Lebanese railways, Adnan Ramadan, is
pessimistic about a possible comeback for the "iron horse".
"Apart from debates and discussions at government level, there
aren't any plans to revive the railways," he said. "It is simply too
expensive because everything has to be rebuilt. In a way, we are back
where we started in 1895." French consultants reckon that rebuilding
the coastal line alone would cost up to $60m. Ramadan, now 76 years
old, worked for the transport ministry's railway department for more
than 40 years. He retired in 1986, but still fosters a personal love
for trains. "I travelled many times from Beirut to Istanbul by train,
which took about 24 hours," he said. "Today it's two hours by plane
but, if I had the choice, I would still take the train."
For the time being, however, it looks unlikely that he will ever
have that choice. Speakers at last year's international conferences
fully recognised the importance of an efficient railway system for an
Arab common market and for Lebanon's traditional role as a regional
distribution centre. Remarks on the restoration of Lebanon's railways
"full steam ahead", "the country is on the move, the train cannot
stay in the station" and "the train: the environment's friend" were
promising but so far there are no definite plans.
A spokesman for the Council for Development and Reconstruction
said that it had no plans to invest in a railway system and told The
Daily Star to speak to the transport ministry.
Bassam Abdel-Malek, chairman of the board of directors for the
railway at the ministry, which still has 200 former railway employees
on its payroll, said simply: "There's no railway, so there's nothing
to talk about." The first railway in Lebanon was also the first in
the Arab world. It was opened on August 3, 1895, when a steam
locomotive took the first passengers from Beirut to Damascus.
"There were four major uses for trains in Lebanon," Ramadan
said. "Trains moved 1,000 tonnes of fuel a day from the refinery in
Zahrani to the electricity plants south of Beirut," he said. "Cement
came daily from Chekka to Beirut; there was a very profitable line
between Beirut port and Baghdad; and finally there were daily
passenger trains from Beirut to Aleppo and two return trips a day
between Beirut and Damascus."
Ramadan said the railway system was profitable until 1970 when the
rising popularity of cars and planes started to take its toll. The
whole network was destroyed in the first two years of the war.
Last November's conference was told that 250,000 tonnes of freight
were transported between Beirut and Damascus in 1965. As nearly all of
this traffic now goes by road, moving freight by rail would help clear
bottlenecks on the Beirut-Damascus road, a possibility gaining support
in the light of the resurrection of Beirut port. Statistics quoted by
one expert put the cost of traffic jams and road accidents in the
United States at more than $672bn a year, without considering the cost
of environmental damage in the form of air and noise pollution.
Faster, safer journeys for passengers, especially for tourists, would
be another advantage. A new railway between Tripoli, Beirut and Tyre
could expect to carry 3,000 passengers a day, a Lebanese delegate told
the conference. Ramadan agreed, adding that railways were cheaper and
less polluting than road or air transport. "It takes about 300 cars
but just one train to transport 1,000 people," he said. Another part
of his desire to see the railways return is an undimmed passion for
trains. "I had the chance to travel all over Europe because of my
job," he said, "and I always went by train. Instead of flying over
countries, you see the cities, rivers and mountains that make the
country. And a train is much more comfortable than a car."
From the Levant's first locomotives to the end of the line
The first track was opened in 1895, the 147km trip from Beirut
to Damascus used to take nine hours, passing through Baabda, Aley,
Bhamdoun, Sofar and Dahr al-Baidar before descending into the Bekaa
towards the Syrian border.
"The trip took so long because the train climbed 1,487m to Dahr
al-Baidar, before going down to Chtaura and Rayak," former railway
employee Adnan Ramadan said. "The train had a special system with
hooks under it so that it could not roll back down the mountain."
The second track was built by 1906 and connected Rayak with
Homs, Hama and Aleppo, 90km of it passing through Lebanon. "The
construction of a railway system not only served to transport
civilians," Ramadan said. "It was part of a larger political, and
often military, game."
Rayak connected Beirut and the Bekaa to Damascus and Aleppo, which
in turn were linked to Istanbul and Ankara. By 1906, there were plans
to expand into Transjordan and build a coastal railway northwards from
Haifa. "The system was meant to become the ideal infrastructure for
the whole Ottoman empire," Ramadan said. "The Germans, who built most
of the railways for the Turks, had their own agenda. They wanted a
direct link from Europe, through the Middle East to north Africa." The
train, he explained, was an integral part of German empire-building.
The third railway was built in 1911 between Tripoli and Homs
and the fourth was built during the second world war to transport
British troops and military equipment between Haifa and Tripoli. "In
1945, Lebanon bought the 170km railway," Ramadan said, "but they had
to cut the track because of the Arab-Israeli conflict. So the
Haifa-Tripoli line became the Naqoura-Tripoli line."