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.