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The Rails That Built Lebanon. By Nicolas Photiades

The Rails That Built Lebanon

The private railroad network that began in the late 19th century revolutionized Beirut and the Levant, boosting economic activity and highlighting how we once were on the vanguard of innovation. Reviving the derelict rails that fell to ruin in the civil war should be a key component of restoring Lebanon’s economy and making us once again the region’s technological revolutionaries

By Nicolas Photiades

I was going through my personal library the other day and noticed a book that brought back memories of my childhood. The book, entitled ’Les Chemins de Fer en Syrie et au Liban,’ was written in 1944 by my great uncle and godfather, Eleuthere Elefteriades. Uncle Elefteri (the way to pronounce it in Greek) was a great scholar and pioneer who inspired me a lot when I was a child. That year, he took the Orient Express to Paris from Beirut, a three-day train trip that cut through Nazi-dominated Europe (via Yugoslavia), to present the book as his doctoral thesis at the University of Paris, which harked back to a time when Lebanon was – surprisingly for most of us today – at the forefront of technological innovation.

At the time, this venerable gentleman managed a private company called Damas-Hama Prolongement, or DHP – which operated the railroads for both Lebanon and Syria – first as general manager and then as chairman over a period of at least 25 years. But by 1955, both the Lebanese and Syrian governments decided to buy back their rail networks, beginning the gradual demise of our golden era for train transportation. Until the two states took control, the rails were operated as a concession, which involves a government or controlling authority granting a tract of land to the private sector in return for a promise that the land will be used for a specific purpose, in DHP’s case, railways. My uncle continued running the nationalized company until 1964, when he retired at the age of 62.

His book remains the only one ever written on the early days of Levantine locomotives and sells for more than €250 on the internet. I am lucky enough to own a copy, which he signed for my parents in the late 1950s. The exhaustive work describes how the networks in both Lebanon and Syria came to be and the pivotal role they played in helping the two neighboring countries develop commercially and economically. Beirut would not have thrived and become a regional hub without the railroad and the Lebanese like my great uncle and many others before him who championed new ideas that spurred growth and prosperity.

Just as these concessions first granted during the Ottoman era to the private companies of the time had such a positive effect on economic and social life, I strongly feel that Lebanon could benefit today from the same transformations. Imagine what railways could bring today to our country: a land link to the Arab hinterland that would be much faster and efficient than driving. Railways would give us all choices as to how we can travel around, reduce road congestion (in the same manner the Michelline – a locomotive-passenger wagon all in one – decongested during the early 20th century the now very busy northern highway from Beirut to Jounieh) and give us all cleaner air to breathe. They would link Beirut Port to countries in the rest of the Arab world and reestablish our capital city firmly as the regional hub it deserves to be.

As was the case in the 19th century, the decision for a better life and the entry into a modern era lies in the hands of our leaders. It will be up to any government in place to decide on whether to re-develop the rail network, after decades of neglect, and on how to fund it. Indeed, the state could decide to finance it entirely and give out a management contract to a specialist firm to manage it over a certain number of years, or it could simply privatize it in the form of a concession. The latter form of privatization is very common in the rest of the world. For instance, the government could grant a consortium of international railways companies a 25-year concession to rebuild (at their own cost) and manage the railway network, in exchange for management fees and a share of the profits. Such a scheme, would not only have significant indirect social and economic benefits, it would also bring much needed cash directly into the state’s coffers. At a time when the country is over-indebted and is lacking economic growth and job creation, I am convinced railways would provide economic diversification and put us on the map among the advanced nations of the region.

The French Road

Back in the mid-19th century, the so-called French Road was the only way inhabitants of Beirut – numbering about 60,000 – could trot or gallop their way to Damascus and trade goods with its 150,000 denizens. Then the only paved road in the near East, the route won international renown for its essential role in driving economic growth in the two cities and the Levant generally, cutting the amount of time it took to travel between them to 13 hours from four days. The Sublime Porte conceded the road in 1856 to Count Edmond de Perthuis, a former navy officer who was living in Beirut, for him to exploit and operate for 50 years. At the time, Lebanon’s road link to neighboring countries was very poor and inefficient, and a traveler would take huge risks when journeying to relatively far-away places such as Damascus.

But the French Road soon reached maximum capacity, and as the 50-year lease was nearing its end, the highway and the Port of Beirut that it helped prosper came under threat by the Ottomans’ first rail concession in the region, which was granted to a British firm for the Haifa-Damascus line. This prompted the French, who feared that the British initiative would rob Beirut of its place as a regional commercial center in favor of Haifa, to ask for their own Beirut-Damascus rail concession. Hoping to avoid being beaten by their British rivals, who had a few months’ head start, the French forced their workers to slave round the clock and through the winter in the snowy mountains to finish the rail line quickly. The first trains on both lines – and the first in the region – made their inaugural journeys to Damascus in August 1895, likely within months of each other. That further trimmed the 147-kilometer trip from Beirut to Damascus to less than nine hours.

The new lines brought about significant benefits. They stimulated commercial and industrial activity throughout the regions where the rails passed and gave Beirut’s port huge importance as a regional hub. Rails were also at the origin of the development of the Bekaa wine industry, with the French Brun family becoming the first to establish its wineries there. The rail also helped significantly boost tourism and put Lebanon on the map worldwide as one of the most modern and innovative countries in the Middle East.

Later on, during the Second World War, Lebanese railways were extended to include a coastal line from Haifa to the Syrian border in the north, going through Tripoli. With this latest addition to the existing network, it became possible for Lebanon to be linked directly to the rest of the region and to Europe. It was this new line and its link to the Orient Express that allowed my uncle to travel to Nazi-occupied Paris in 1944 to present his doctorate thesis on railways in the Levant.

The Forgotten Rails

The story of Lebanese railways ended with the start of the civil war of 1975-1990. By then, the nationalized railways were already falling into disrepair, though pre-civil war governments were developing plans to update and expand the network. With the onset of sectarian bloodletting, all plans were flushed down the toilet, and the railways were quickly forgotten. During the 1990s, however, with the re-establishment of the Council for Development and Reconstruction and the promise of a new golden era under Rafic Hariri’s Horizon 2000 reconstruction program, French and US government railways consultancy firms were asked to re-evaluate the viability of a railway network in Lebanon. They all came to the same conclusion: that a coastal line would, as a first stage, be highly profitable, particularly for freight transport. Unfortunately, the volatile political environment of the last two decades, the lack of willingness to privatize and the shortage of funding (although this was just an excuse used by the various governments of the time to dismiss the project) prevented the coastal line from being re-developed. There was also significant interference from private truck and bus transport lobbies, which shortsightedly saw railways as a threat to their business.

While I know that the history of Lebanese railways might sound boring and irrelevant to a lot of people, it showed how innovative Lebanon was at a time when the whole world was embracing railways, convinced that trains would bring economic prosperity and resolve significant mobility problems. In the late 19th century, railways were the markets’ bubble of the time, in the same manner that the internet, telecommunications and audio visual advancements are considered to have changed our lives today. The thing is that while we have embraced the latest telecom and other technological fads, we have neglected the sector that put us on the economic map in the first place, and which linked us to the rest of the region.

Reviving The Rails

In addition to the obvious benefits experienced more than a century ago, there are many more today to the revival of the railways network in Lebanon. For a start, it would contribute significantly toward easing traffic jams on Lebanese roads and highways, in the same way the Beirut-Damascus line decongested the limited road network Lebanon had in the 19th century. Lebanon is quickly reaching over-capacity in terms of roads and is suffering from serious pollution and ecological issues as a result of the exponential rise in the number of cars. A railroad run on electricity would reduce air and noise pollution and would provide cheaper and more efficient transportation alternatives to businesses with freight transport issues as well as to individuals. Railways would produce mobility of labor and capital, particularly between the countries of the Levant, and would significantly facilitate the expansion of industrialization in the region (this, of course, wouldn’t get into full swing until the war in Syria and the chaos in Iraq wane).

In 1999, a special meeting of the Arab league took place to decide on the development of railways across all Arab countries, from Morocco to Oman, going through the Levant and the Gulf. Each Arab country was asked to develop its own internal rail network and be ready to link it to that of its neighbor, and hence to the rest of the region. Lebanon, so far is one of the few countries not to have taken the Arab League decision seriously. Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf states are all working hard on developing their own rail networks, while we are still reflecting on the effects and benefits of developing one here. A major consultant for the Lebanese Ministry of Transport, specializing in railways, told me years ago that the revival of the rail network would reduce employment, encourage tourism and have significant strategic and social importance. Railways would provide internal security and produce significant economies of scale in terms of the transportation of merchandise. They would also change social attitudes and make people no longer worry about where to live. Even real estate would stabilize and prices would reach equilibrium across the country.

A 21st-Century Concession

The best way today to bring back the trains is to re-privatize the network through the concession method, as it was during the days of the DHP. No need to get indebted to finance the development of this sector just to keep it in government hands. There are currently around 350 employees manning the rail section of the Office of Railways and Transport en Commun. Most of them are guards in the now disaffected train stations or have been re-assigned to work on the road transport side of the ’business.’ A privatization would not threaten these few people’s job security, unlike the effect such a move at Electricité du Liban would have on its countless and useless personnel.

I am sure that any foreign operator who would have been chosen to re-develop and manage Lebanese railways would not really bother about firing these people. The challenge would remain the funding of the re-development and building, and convincing the local political establishment that railways are good for them and the country, never mind keeping the private road transport sector lobby quiet.

Countless studies (all foreign-funded) have been made in the last fifteen years by specialized and recognized research organizations, which have proved on more than one occasion that the revival of railways makes economic and business sense. On the back of these findings, funds would surely be available from international financial institutions to develop the network, provided it is run by a professional multinational organization (and not by the Lebanese state) and there is a clear political will to develop railways. For the moment, all we can all do is watch the naive billboards showing Lebanese TGVs of the future, which would only come about with oil revenues. In other words, we can keep dreaming and my great uncle, who was one of the pioneers of railways in this part of the world, can turn in his grave willy-nilly.

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