Lebanese Railways: Searching for a Locomotive
By: Rebecca Whiting
The appointment a few months previously of a new director general for the Railway and Public Transportation Authority, Ziad Nasr, raised more than a few eyebrows. Since the railways were closed in 1976 during the civil war, the idea of a passenger or freight train network in Lebanon seems but a fantasy to most, and public sentiment toward the authority, which still employs 350 workers, is generally somewhat negative when it is hard to see its existence justified.
In fact, the authority also runs the bus network and over 120 of its employees are bus drivers and inspectors. Another 20 work in administration for the authority. The majority of the others, many men who were in years gone by train drivers and mechanics, are now employed to guard the 60 disused stations dotted along the country’s three defunct lines, protecting them from thieves and property developers. Over 90,000 hectares of land belongs to the Railway Authority as does a wealth of rails, locomotives, wagons, and all manner of equipment in varying states of disrepair, all of which require full-time staff to stop them from deteriorating.Lebanon’s railway has a rich and illustrious heritage. The tracks were laid when the country was under Ottoman rule. The empire granted a French company a concession to build the first railway from Beirut to Damascus through Riyaq in the Bekaa valley in 1891. In 1895 the first train journeyed from Beirut and work on the coastal railway that connected Tripoli to Aleppo in Syria was running by 1911. A third line was later built between Riyaq and Baalbek.
To visit Riyaq train station now feels like stepping into a post-apocalyptic, uninhabited world. Built among the valley’s fields in the 1890s, the abandoned station has been empty since the civil war; held in stasis with only time, rust, and wildlife at work.
Giant steam engines rot in their tracks which have long since been overgrown with grass. Derelict depots are full of the lined-up rusting mechanical beasts, many of which have trees and wildflowers growing through their empty cabins. Freight cars stand linked up, motionless and empty. A lone passenger carriage stands a little further away, gutted of its seats and floor and bearing several generations worth of graffiti.
Riyaq was a vital organ of the rail network as it was also a train factory. The old furnaces are still in their places as well as extraordinary machines of cogs and wheels that used to build the engines and to convert them from steam-power to fuel. The enormous hangars have lost large parts of their roofs, the tiles lay scattered and broken on the floor, bearing the name of a company in Marseilles.
Despite the romance and aching beauty of the silent spot, it holds an eeriness and somber sadness. The station closed officially in 1976 and was occupied by the Syrian army between that year and 2005. Since they evacuated, the sprawling site and its contents have been closed off and left to rot.
The Lebanese NGO Train Train has for the last eight years been working to not only preserve the railway heritage but to put pressure on the authorities to reinstate the railways as a mode of transportation. The organization, founded by documentary-maker Elias Maalouf, includes engineers, urban planners, train enthusiasts, and members of the public who firmly believe in the enormous benefits the railways could bring to modern Lebanon.
One of the group’s projects that the authorities have not permitted was a plan to turn Riyaq into a railway museum, celebrating the history of the once pulsing heart of activity and industry that connected swathes of the continent with even further reaches. Maalouf, who grew up in Riyaq, said, “A museum would be inspirational. It would be a reminder that 125 years ago Lebanon had the best transportation system in the Middle East; we then had something that every country is the world is now looking for: sustainable transport.”
Train Train’s main objective is to see Lebanon served with a network of passenger and freight trains. They coordinate their activities with other like-minded organizations in the National Coalition for Sustainable Transport, which for the past three years has been actively pushing for improvement in all aspects of transport, from sidewalks to bike lanes and bus routes.
There is a long history of attempts from various parties to reinvigorate the rail network. In 1991, when the civil war ended, the Railway Authority repaired the track between Beirut and Jbeil, christening the route the Peace Train. However, with only one track functioning and no proper intersections with the roads, the project was short-lived.
It did, however, pave the way for serious studies to be undertaken in 1995 into the feasibility of reopening the railways. After studies were completed, the option of reworking the lines was met with a resounding “no” when parliament voted on the issue.Then, in 2002 a bilateral agreement was reached between Lebanon and Syria to revive the railways that once connected the countries. Syria completed the design aspect and the Lebanese Railway Authority purchased tracks and equipment. The plan was never implemented, with a lack of funds being cited as the cause. The purchased rails are currently lying redundant in storage in Tripoli.
Authority over the rail network is a confusing arena, with several bodies exerting some power, including a board of trustees that includes government officials and private shareholders. Lines are also hazy as to the jurisdiction of the Land and Maritime Transport Authority and the Railway and Public Transportation Authority.
Complexities extend further still. Transport engineer and longtime consultant Tammam Nakkash explains that “public transport is under the jurisdiction of the transport ministry but the necessary link does not exist to translate their authority into action at the municipal level.”
Nakkash was of the belief that a railway would offer a viable solution to alleviating public transport problems, as well as playing a vital role in Lebanon’s import and export sector, but felt that plans were not near moving past the discussion phase any time soon.
Train Train are feeling more confident. After their first meeting with Nasr last week, Maalouf said that the Railway Authority’s new director general is enthusiastic about reform, though is aware of the gargantuan task ahead. Refreshingly, he is welcome to the role civil society groups can play in pushing for progress in the transportation sector.
After years of bad experiences with the previous establishment, Maalouf said, “Hopefully now the authorities have realized that they need the railways and this is why they have brought in someone like Nasr. Who knows, maybe 2013 will see a train will cross the Mar Mikhael bridge again.”