CEL - Lebanese Railways CEL - Chemin de Fer de l'Etat Libanais
Lebanese State Railways

Continental Railway Circle

Continental Railway Journal

Middle East Railways
by Hugh Hughes

(The following is an adaptation of parts relevant to the railways of Lebanon and appears by kind permission of The Continental Railway Circle.)

4. MIDDLE EAST FORCES [pp. 45-48]

The events of the 1939-45 war resulted in an enormous increase in traffic throughout the area and this section deals particularly with the effect on the railways in Egypt and Palestine where the military efforts came specifically under GHQ Middle East Forces in Cairo. In 193940 the ESR alone carried 33 million passengers and 6 1/4 million tons of freight; in 19434 the corresponding figures were 58 million and 81/2 million (excluding military freight), and it is small wonder that so many extra locomotives had to be brought in to deal with the situation. The transport of troops was naturally a major item and one particular instance may be quoted here as an example of what had to be done: on 18th July 1942 the Queen Elizabeth disembarked 9400 troops at Suez in 13 1/2 hours, using a flotilla of 10 Nile ferries, 2 Z-craft and 2 double-decker launches, and these were immediately dispersed - 5250 by 9 special trains, 950 by road and 3200 to transit camps.

To begin with, the most important strategic line was the one westwards from Alexandria to Mersa Matruh. The first sections had been constructed by the Khedive to serve some of his estates and were generally referred to as the Maryut (or sometimes Daira Khassa) Railway. By 1914 a standard gauge line went as far as Daba with a metre gauge extension through Fuka, but in that year the system was purchased by the State and, after being used for a time to supply British forces in the Senussi campaign, most of the line was then dismantled and the materials used for the wartime railways being built in the Sinai. After hostilities ceased, the ESR gradually restored the line, on standard gauge, and by 1935 it had reached Fuka again. The British Government requested its extension to Mersa Matruh on strategic grounds and this was completed in April 1936 with the ESR contributing half the cost.

In October 1940 New Zealand Royal Engineers began an extension westwards in preparation for a military offensive; to climb the escarpment behind Matruh the junctibn was actually at Similla, the site having been previously fixed by the ESR. Work stopped in January 1941 but restarted in June when changes in the war situation made it necessary again. In September the line reached an important meeting place of desert tracks known to the British troops as Charing Cross, but at the request of Egypt the name of the station was altered to Mohalafa ("Alliance"). At Misheifa (November) a large circular or balloon-type depot was laid out to deceive enemy planes, and a dummy railhead built further west got most of the bombs. Capuzzo was reached in February 1942 and being by this time in Libya they felt free to honour the various Dominion troops by allotting station names like Rumbalbelipur for the Indians and Waikikamoukau for the New Zealanders; alas these two proved too long for the train tablets and were soon altered to Musaid and Sandilane.

Belhamed was reached in June 1942, with tactical railhead at Sandilane, but then came a rapid military retreat and by the end of the month they were back at Alamein; only one locomotive was lost, ESR 2-6-0 590, which was unfit to travel and was blown up at Daba. However in November there was an equally rapid advance with the line reopened to Daba (9th), Matruh (13th), Capuzzo (20th) and Tobruk Road (1st December). At this stage the Western Desert Extension Railway (Similla-Tobruk) was being worked by two New Zealand Railway Operating Companies, normally using steam to Capuzzo (maximum load 600 tons) and diesels from there on (two per 500 ton train). During the fortnight ending 12th December, 76 trains (3001 wagons) left Similla for Capuzzo, and 56 trains (2102 wagons) left Capuzzo for Tobruk. Early in 1943 the line down to Tobruk Harbour was in regular use and from 1st July the ESR took over the WDE as far as Capuzzo, the rest being at that time operated by an Indian RE company.

With the Mediterranean route becoming virtually closed to Allied shipping the pressure on Suez was enormous and two new railways were built to alleviate this. The longer of these ran from Qena on the upper Nile to the Red Sea at Safaga (map: page 15), a distance of 116 miles; surveys were completed in July 1941 and work started the following month. The materials were supplied mostly from India, resulting in a metre gauge being adopted, but the line was actually built and operated by the ESR at Army expense. Through linkage was achieved on 16th May 1942 but owing to a delay in supplying cistern wagons the railway was not in operation until 1st July. The total cost was £746,840 and £200 per month was paid to the Egyptian Phosphate Company for running rights over the last section to Safaga which used the route of that concern's existing line there. By the beginning of 1944 the need for this railway, running through inhospitable terrain, had ceased; the ESR did not want to purchase it and it was closed from 11th February, being lifted later that year.

The other line was built for 71 miles across open desert along the eastern side of the Suez Canal from Qantara down to El Shatt, immediately opposite Suez, where new facilities were constructed. Built to standard gauge by Australian RE, it was started in June 1941 and completed by 1st July 1942, being operated by the ESR from that date. At the end of July the new Firdan Bridge across the Canal was tested and duly opened for traffic on 7th August; on the same day the two ferries that had been used at Qantara ceased to operate, and on 15th August a through passenger service Cairo-Haifa via Firdan Bridge was inaugurated.

In November 1940 Australian Royal Engineers in Palestine began reconditioning the 1.05m railway from Tulkarm to Afula, and a New Zealand RE company ran 3 trains daily each way on that line from 6th June to 13th October in connection with the operations in Syria. It was then closed until October 1944 when Palestine Railways began to operate goods trains between Tulkarm and Nablus, the cost of reconditioning again being met by the War Dept. The Australians also built a new 1.05m gauge railway in Jordan from Ma'an to Naqb Ashtar (30 miles) using material recovered from the old Hijaz route; at the same time the road onwards to the port of Aqaba was improved. This line was completed on 16th March 1942 and maintained by PR, being operated as a "siding" as it was not necessary to open it for normal traffic.

The most interesting event in this area however was the decision to construct a standard gauge link between Haifa and the railways of Syria. This meant that stores and equipment could be moved quickly, without transhipment problems due to change of gauge, from depots in Egypt and Palestine right up to the Turkish border - and beyond if necessary. Moreover it would also provide a through connection with Iraq. In the event Turkey maintained its neutrality and refused permission for British military stores to pass indiscriminately over its section of the Aleppo-Mosul railway. Nevertheless locomotives were transferred to and from Iraq by this route, and the line from Haifa was also used to move ex-Middle East engines to Turkey after purchase by that country. The first proposal was for a line from Haifa to Rayak but a 1941 reconnaissance revealed construction difficulties that would have taken far too long to overcome. So instead it was decided to blast a route along the coast connecting Haifa with Beirut and Tripoli; this involved some very difficult work negotiating the steep cliffs where the various headlands met the sea. From Haifa to Beirut the construction was carried out by South African engineers and it is interesting to note that a temporary 1.05m gauge line was in use in April 1942 on the 14 miles between Damour Bridge and Beirut so that narrow gauge facilities at the latter place could be used for supplying materials. In June the South Africans were transferred elsewhere and the finishing touches were added by two New Zealand RE companies. Regular military traffic started on 24th August 1942, including three passenger services per week.

From Beirut to Tripoli construction was by Australian Royal Engineers, except for the difficult Chekka tunnel which was built by a tunnelling company recruited from South African miners for this special job. By July 1942 the 14 miles from Chekka Cement Works to Tripoli were already in use but the whole line from Beirut was not completed until 18th December; two days later General Alexander presided at the official opening ceremony for the Azzib-Tripoli railway (the PR were operating the Haifa-Azzib section). Some idea of the character of this line can be gleaned from the fact that when on one occasion some trucks became derailed near Sidon thus holding up 15 following trains with important supplies, the action taken was to bring along a travelling crane and tip all the offending stock over the edge into the sea.

The Chekka headland above the railway tunnel.

5. SYRIA & LEBANON [pp. 61-71]

In 1891 a French company obtained a concession to build a railway from Beirut to Damascus and this was soon merged with a Belgian project (CF en Sync) for a line to Muzeinib serving the rich grain area of the Hauran. Formed in Paris, the Societe des Chemins de fer Ottomans Economiques de Beyrouth-Damas-Hauran at first planned a metre gauge adhesion line but the difficulties involved in ascending the Lebanon range behind Beirut resulted in the adoption of the Abt rack system for part of the route. The new trace was less circuitous but involved gradients of 1 in 14, and two reversals at Chouit-Araye and Aley, on the rack sections between kilometres 6 and 47 (from Beirut). [See footnote 1] The summit of 5059 feet was reached at 38km after which the track descended to Rayak (3100ft) before climbing again to 4636ft to cross the Anti-Lebanon range; these two mountain areas, covered with snow for many months each year, made it a very difficult line to operate. The railway was actually built to a gauge of 1.05 metres and was opened in July 1894 (Damascus-Muzeirib) and August 1895 (Beirut-Damascus). The early passenger services were restricted to one each way daily and in 1898 journeys between Beirut and Damascus normally took about nine hours for the 91 miles while the Damascus-Muzeirib trip took four hours.

Two interesting short-wheelbase Belgian 0-6-UT locomotives. Tramway Libanais 6 (above), noted at Samakh (Tsemah) in 1942, was built by St Léonard in 1896. DHP 108 HERMON (below) was at Beirut in 1948 and had come from the Tubize works in 1893. P.J. Bawcutt

Meanwhile in 1893 another concession had been granted for a standard gauge railway DamascusHoms-Hama-Aleppo-Birecik, with a coastal branch, which because of its obvious strategic importance was granted a guarantee of receipts by the Turkish Government. In fact the scheme was amended to cover a line from Rayak to Aleppo (where it would join the Baghdad Railway), with a branch to Tripoli, and was carried out by the same French company as before, the title being changed to Socit Ottomane du Chemin de fer Damas-Hama et prolongements, or DHP for short. Trains began running between Rayak and Ba'albek from 19th June 1902 but progress in general was slow and the line to Aleppo was not completed until 1906; the branch to Tripoli was opened in June 1911.

Another interesting concern was the Tramway Libanais, a short 1.05m gauge line along the coast northwards from Beirut, also managed by the DHP. It had been started about 1895 with Tripoli as the original objective but had only reached Mameltein by 1908, and the rest of the project was only achieved 34 years later when the HBT line was built, using much of the tramway route.

Three large snowsheds near Dahr el Baydar, close to the summit of the Beirut-Riyak 1.05m gauge line. P.J. Bawcutt

With the outbreak of the 1914-18 war interest switched to the Baghdad Railway and although the difficult sections through southern Turkey were far from finished the line from Radjou to Jerablus, together with the Aleppo branch, had been completed in December 1912. Progress had then continued through Tel Ebiad (July 1914) and Tuem (June 1915) to Rasel Am (July 1915), and finally Nusaybin (by October 1918). In 1917 the line to Tripoli had been lifted and the materials used elsewhere and a similar fate had previously (1915) been suffered by the Damascus-Muzeirib 1.05m gauge line which was in any case duplicated by the Hijaz Railway, dealt with in the next section.

CFS 0-6-2T 031-804 (SLM 1894) at Damascus in November 1966; the original rack mechanise has been removed. A. T. Johnson

CEL class A 0-8-2T 33 (SLM 1906) at Rayak in 1966. Both the types on this page were fully described in the Locomotive Magazine for 1910, page 149. A. T. Johnson

When the war was over the situation was complicated by the Turkish-Syrian border being drawn just to the south of the railway line for most of the way. From 1922 that section, together with the lines to Aleppo, formed part of a system worked by the French company CF de CilicieNord Syrie, succeeded in 1928 by another French concern - Sociêtè d'exploitation des CF Bozanti-Alep-Nissibine et prolongements. The last named company was liquidated in July 1933 when all its lines north of the border came under direct Turkish control and those in Syria became known as Lignes Syriennes de Baghdad (LSB), being operated as a subsidiary of DHP. The DHP, which had resumed possession of its system in 1919, had reopened the Tripoli line in October 1921; the Muzeirib line however was not worth relaying, especially as the DHP took over the administration of all the Hijaz Railway lines in Syria from 1st March 1924. Finally, one more line must be mentioned here - the extension of the Baghdad route through Syria from Nusaybin to Tel Ziouane (1933) and Tel Kotchek (in regular use from May 1935). The construction of the Haifa-Beirut-Tripoli railway has been covered in the previous section. In 1946 the Government of Lebanon, by then an independent state, agreed to purchase for £5 million the line from the Israel border at Naqoura to Tripoli, the railway being operated by the DHP. It is interesting to note here that the original Lebanese Tramway concession contained a provision enabling the government to purchase the property if it was proposed to construct a broad gauge coastal railway. In fact only the Beirut-Tripoli section was fully used, the main traffic being cement from Chekka, although there was some oil transported from a refinery near Sidon. The only regular passenger services consisted of a weekly sleeping car which joined the Taurus Express at Aleppo and the through Beirut-Aleppo railcars belonging to Syria.

The rack locomotive in both these 1974 pictures is 0-10-OT 301 (SLM 1924) shown leaving the reversing station at Aley en route for Bhamdoun, the next station up the line, and (below) crossing the main road at Bhamdoun on a downward trip. P. J. Bawcutt

From 1st January 1961 all the railways in Lebanon became state-owned, known as the Chemin de for de l'Etat Libanais (CEL). Traffic on the 1.05m line steadily declined and often the only passengers were Sunday excursionists using coaches attached to a freight train; not surprising perhaps when the train took two hours to get from Beirut to Aley compared with 30 minutes by bus. More recently the fighting in Lebanon has played havoc with communications and up-todate particulars are not available,

This interesting 0-4-42T Mallet, CFS 02021-961 (Hartm 1906), was at Damascus in 1966. The first part of the number indicates the axle arrangement. A.T. Johnson

In Syria however the railways have flourished. Owned by the State since 1956, and reorganised as CF Syriennes (CFS) from 1st January 1965, they have been considerably expanded (with Russian assistance) in connection with the industrial development of the country. The ports of Tartus and Latakia have been enlarged and they were connected by rail to Akkari and Aleppo in 1968 and 1975 respectively. A huge irrigation scheme is in progress involving a dam across the Euphrates at Tabqa, and a new through railway has been completed from Aleppo to the dam site (1968), and on to Raqqa (1972) and Deir ez Zor (1973), finally reaching Qamishliye, on the old Baghdad route, in 1976. Another new line from Horns to Palmyra (where there are valuable phosphate deposits) was completed in 1980, and work on a direct connection between Horns and Damascus is now in progress.

DHP 0-8-0 24 (Cail 1906), beautifully maintained, at Tripoli in 1944; the polished brass plates on the cab-side include one for the names of the driver and fireman. P. J. Bawcutt

Locomotive Lists

Tramway Libanais (1.05m gauge)

Numbers     Type    Class    Makers   Makers' Nos. Dates  Disposal

1-4          0-6-OT           StL      1013-16      1895   DHPTLI-4
5-6          0-6-01           StL      1017-18      1896   DHPTL5-6
7-8          0-6-UT           StL      1019-20      1896   Hijaz 19-20 (?)

DHP (1.05m gauge) (Excluding Hijaz locomotives)

1            0-6-2T    B      SLM      841          1893   (a)
2            0-6-2T    B      SLM      842          1893   Replaced 1904
3-5          0-6-21    B      SLM      843-45       1894   CFS 031.803-5
6-8          0-6-21    B      SLM      846-48       1894   CEL 6-8
9-11         0-6-2T    B      SLM      985-87       1896   CEL 10(a)
2,12         0-6-2T    B      SLM      1585-86      1904   CEL 2,12
31-35        0-8-2T    A      SLM      1741-45      1906   CEL 31-35
36-37        0-8-2T    A      SLM      1744-75      1906   CEL 36-37
51           2-6-OT    D      SLM      849          1894   CFS 130.755 (b)
52           2-6-0T    D      SLM      850          1894   (a)
53-56        2-6-0T    D      SLM      851-54       1894   CFS 130.751-4
61-62        0-4-4-2T  C      Hartm    3000-01      1906   CFS 02021.961-62
101-08 (c)   0-6-01    E      Tub      872-79       1893   CEL 103/4/7/8 (a) (d)
201-03       0-4-OD           Moyse                 1936   CEL 201-03
301-02       0-10-OT   S      SLM      2966-67      1924   CEL 301-02
303-05       0-10-UT   S      SLM      3123-25      1926   CEL 303-05
306-07       0-10-01   S      SLM      3721/20      1940   CEL 306-07

DHP (Standard gauge)

1-6          0-6-0     H      WN       443742       1902   CEL 1-3, 5-6
21-35        0-8-0     G      Cail     2735-49      1906   CEL 21-35
51-53        2-8-0     K      Maff     3199-201     1910   CFS 140.351-3
54-55        2-8-0     K      KrM      15676-77     1938   CFS 140.354-5
58-59 (e)    0-6-0            Essl     2365, 2490   1890/1 CFS 030.158-9
618-20 (e)   2-6-0            Bors     8383-85      1912   CFS 130.218-20
(two) (e)    0-10-0   (G10)   Bors     8569,?       1913   CFS 050.501-2
801-48       0-8-0    (G8)    (see Appendix "E")           (f)
73685-88(g)  2-10-0   (WD)    NB       25471-74     1944   CFS 150.685-8

Diesels (Standard gauge)

CEL 601-04   0-6-0    (GM6)   EMD      25462-65     1960   (600HP)
CFS 301-15   Co-Co    (U17C)  GE       40664-78     1976   (1700HP)
CFS 351-65   Co-Co    (U17C)  GE       40679-93     1976   (17001-IP)

Syria also has a large number of diesel locomotives built in Russia
and France; full details are not yet available.

(a) Nos. 1, 9, 11,52,101/2/5/6 had all been withdrawn by 1925.
(b) Now carries plates giving SLM 855.
(c) Ordered for Hauran line (CF en Syrie).
(d) 107/8 were named MZERIB, HERMON.
(e) CFOA locomotives (Baghdad Railway).
(f) 10 to CE L 101-10; 25 to CFS 040.45175; rest probably to Turkey.
(g) War Department numbers.

An attractive Austria-built 0-6-0, DHP 5 (WN 1902), pauses for its photograph at Homs in 1950. P.J. Bawcutt

DHP 51 (Maff 1910), a much larger and more powerful 2-8-0 locomotive, was taken at Homs in the previous year.P.J. Bawcutt

The Tramway Libanais stock consisted of short-wheelbase tank locomotives not unlike those built for the Hauran line by another Belgian maker a few years previously. Only six appear to have worked on the tramway and it seems likely that the other two were used on Hijaz Railway construction (see next section).

DHP 1-12, eventually classified "B", were compound rack locomotives specially provided for working the difficult section over the Lebanon range. For the Rayak-Damascus trains a series of adhesion-only 2-6-OT engines (later class "D") were used, and eight small 0-6-OTs had been ordered for the Hauran trains. In 1906 more powerful locomotive designs appeared - an eightcoupled compound rack locomotive and an interesting Mallet type, also compound, for heavy trains over the Anti-Lebanon section; both engines of the latter class are still active today.

A contrast in motive power on the Lebanese system in 1974. 0-8-0 108 (Schich 1907) at Jubail, between Beirut and Tripoli, has been rebuilt with the distinctive wide chimney mentioned on page 67. The lower picture shows diesel CEL 604 (EMD 1960) at Beirut. P.J. Bawcutt

The 1914-18 war resulted in several engines being damaged and these had all been written off stock by 1925. A series of new ten-coupled rack locomotives appeared from 1924 onwards and as a result many of the earlier "B" class engines had their rack mechanism removed, being reclassified "BA". Steam traction has remained active on all the 1.05m gauge lines although services generally are now on a much reduced scale.

The DHP standard gauge stock was straightforward in design and included some Baghdad Railway types used on the lines from Aleppo up to the Turkish border. Then in 1939 the French decided to send urgently to Syria fifty G8 0-8-0 engines which had been transferred to France from Germany as reparations after the first world war; 48 of these were actually received and quickly dominated the railway scene. Some were rebuilt with an interesting blast pipe arrangement previously tried out on earlier DHP engines, the most obvious external feature being a single chimney markedly larger than normal in a transverse direction (for particulars see the Railway Gazette 1939A, page 134). Four WD 2-1 0-Os were purchased in 1946 after being on loan, and one was frequently to be found hauling the Taurus Express from Aleppo as far as the Turkish border. Steam continued in use on some of the Syrian standard gauge lines until as late as 1976, after which diesels reigned supreme.

On the standard gauge Syrian lines the largest engines were the ex-WD 2-10-0s; 150-686 (NB 1944) was standing in front of the large locomotive shed at Aleppo in November 1966. The four typical vehicles (below) were at Homs, also in 1966, and from left to right comprised a parcels van, a bogie composite, a four-wheel third and a service carrriage.

Footnote 1:

Approximate distances from Beirut Mar Mikhael Station on Beirut-Riyaq line:

Furn el Shebbak  4
Hadath           6
Baabda           9
Jamhour         12
Chouit-Araye    16
Aley            19
Bhamdoun        25
Soufar          29
Mdeirij         32
Dahr el Baydar  37
Mrajat          42
Jditah-Chtoura  45
Saad-Nayel      51
Maalaqa         56
Riyaq           67

- BL 20080619