Friday, 4 November 2016

Out Of Steam: Lebanon's Railways

125 years ago, in Lebanon, the first studies into the feasibility of a railway in the country were conducted. Four years later, in August 1895, the first lines were opened. At the time, Lebanon was still a part of the waning Ottoman Empire, the last Islamic caliphate. The line was to go from Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, to Damascus, the capital of neighbouring Syria. The line came with great economic benefits for Syria, as it granted Damascus easy port access for the first time.

Royal Australian Engineers helping to build the railways from
Tripoli to Chekka, November 1942.

The French spearheaded this plan, as they saw a rival British plan to link Damascus with Jaffa, a port city now in Israel, as a challenge to French involvement in the region. The British plan also challenged Beirut’s status as the primary port city of the north Levant region. The French-backed Damascus to Beirut line became known as DHP, standing for Damascus, Hamah et Prolonguements.

The Beirut-Damascus line was built to a 1,050mm gauge, across mountainous terrain, and was formally opened on 3 August 1895. It passed through Riyaq and the steepest point was the summit of Beidar mountain. This summit was 37 km away from Beirut and 1487m above sea level, so sections of rack operation were used. However, not even a century later, in the 1970s, the line was already verging on complete obsolescence

Another railway, this time from Riyaq to Aleppo, was approved and finished in 1909. The line, which stretched over a distance of approximately 280 km, went via eastern Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley. Although it was intended to provide service between Damascus and Aleppo, it was built to standard gauge, and as a result, the traffic between the two cities had to change at Riyaq. This line became antiquated in the 1960s and finally went out of service during fighting in 1975/6.

In the north of Lebanon, a line from Homs, Syria, passed through Tripoli and Beirut before stopping just north of Az Zahrani, an oil field close to Ghaziyeh. This line was used for occasional fuel shipments from Tripoli to Beirut during the 1970s, however, the line’s southern section from Beirut to Az Zahrani was cut in several places. French companies began some limited repairs on the damaged sections when in February 1984 violence broke out again and the repairs were abandoned.

A map of Lebanon's railways. Credit: Aya Hibri.

The railways had continued to be used when Lebanon came under French in the early 1920s and was used extensively for military purposes during the Second World War. Under British direction, the coastal line was linked to Haifa (now in Israel) and extended to Tripoli. All these lines were built in standard gauge which made it theoretically possible for someone to take the same train from Europe through to North Africa, except for a ferry across the Bospohrous.

After Lebanon gained independence in 1943, parts of the railway system came under state control and these were conglomerated in 1960 in the CEL, or Chemin de Fer de l’Etat Libanais. A 1974 article revealed that the 1.05 m DHP system was still fully working, but uncompetitive and loss-making, as it was entirely steam operated at this point. Unfortunately, other events took precedence, as in 1975, the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted until 1990, began. During this conflict, serious damage was caused to several of the lines, rendering them practically useless.

The revival of the railway system has now long been discussed in Lebanon. As early as 1983, Canadian consultants studied a possible revival of the coastal line but were stopped by security concerns, and no plans went ahead. Following the Taif Agreement in 1989 and the conclusion of the Lebanese Civil War in 1990, regular services were indefinitely halted, although it is likely these had been stopped a number of years earlier. In 1997, the last regular train operations in Lebanon, carry cement from Chekka to Beirut, ended.

Since the end of the regular use of railways in Lebanon, numerous proposals have been put forward to attempt to revive the railway system, but as of yet, none have come to fruition. There are still around 600 people employed by the government’s public transport service, and roughly half of these are former railway workers that are employed to protect the railway buildings, tracks, trains, and other artifacts from vandals.

Among those calling for a revival, Elias Boutros Maalouf is among the most prominent. A Lebanese-Ecuadorian, he put together a study into the preservation of Lebanon’s railway heritage, ‘Rayak Train Museum Proposal’, in 2009. The document, which was published in French, Arabic and English, describes a plan for a national rail museum in Lebanon. Maalouf is also the founder of Lebanese NGO Train/Train, and has put forward proposals for two other railway heritage items and also a proposal to revive the railway between the Lebanese coastal cities of Byblos and Batroun, as an example of what could be achieved.

Speaking to The Independent, Elias proclaimed that “We need a success story.” The proposed Byblos-Batroun revival, with a budget of £430,000, should only take a matter of months to complete but the government remains reluctant to go forward with it. Elias points out that a revival of the train lines would take much of the pressure off Lebanon’s highly congested roads, which are currently only supplemented by very limited public transport.

A rusty Lebanese train in Riyaq.

The EU’s European Investment Bank is one organisation that agrees with Elias’ assessment and is conducting a study into the feasibility of reviving the Beirut-Tripoli line, the results of which will be published later in 2016. The study is comprehensive, coming to a cost of just under €2 million, and is funded by the Facility for Euro-Mediterranean Investment. But proper plans for railways restoration have not just been thought of. A 2002 Syrian-Lebanese initiative got as far as buying new rails, but, due to a lack of funding and political wrangling, the new rails remain in storage.

The Lebanese government’s inaction is somewhat surprising, as it goes against what they have proclaimed as their objectives on the world stage. In 2003, they entered into the ‘Agreement on International Railways in the Arab Mashreq’ alongside Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. They are a principal component of the current plans for what is known as the Arab Mashreq International Railway, which will include 16 different routes covering 19,500 km. The plans originated in 1998 during a meeting in Beirut of the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (UN-ESCWA). When the agreement was signed in 2003, more than 60% of the railways had yet to be built.

And so, it is apparent that the future of Lebanese railways is uncertain, and will, for the foreseeable future, remain uncertain. Whether the Lebanese government will grasp that there is a demand for further public transport options in Lebanon, or whether they will honour their part in the Arab Mashreq agreement, remains to be seen. Perhaps the European Investment Bank will decide it is economically wise to back a revival of the railway. Perhaps Train/Train will get their way, and Riyaq will get their railway museum. Unfortunately, this is time sensitive, as before very long the remnants of the disused and unkempt railways will be completely inoperable.

Further Reading