Al mashriq - The Levant

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."

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