Lebanon’s Railway: A Future Undetermined
It was 123 years ago, in 1891, when the first studies into the possibility of a railway in Lebanon were conducted. A few years later, in August 1895, the lines were opened. This first railway was built when Lebanon was still a part of the Ottoman Empire, and it was intended to travel from Beirut (the capital of Lebanon) to Damascus (the capital of neighbouring Syria). This plan would give Damascus port access due to Beirut being a city on the coast.
A British plan to link Damascus with Jaffa (a port-city now in Israel) was seen as a challenge to Beirut’s status as the primary port of the northern Levant. This was why the French spearheaded the project to link Beirut with Damascus instead, and this railway became known as the DHP for “Damascus, Hamah et Prolonguements”.
|Beirut Train Station in 1895.|
The Beirut-Damascus line was built to a 1,050mm gauge, across mountainous terrain, and was opened on the 3rd August 1895. It passed through Riyaq and at the steepest point in the track, the summit at Beidar mountain, which was 37 kilometres away from Beirut and was 1487m above sea level, sections of rack operation were used. The Beirut-Damascus line was verging on obsolescence even before the outbreak of civil war in the 1970s.
Another railway from Riyaq to Aleppo (approximately a distance of 280km) via eastern Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley was approved and finished in 1909. 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 was already antiquated in the 1960s, and finally went out of service during fighting in 1975-1976.
In the north of Lebanon, a central station at Homs, Syria, passed through Tripoli and Beirut and ended just above Az Zahrani, an oil field just south of Ghaziyeh. This line was being used for occasional fuel shipments from Tripoli to Beirut throughout the 1970s, however the line’s southern section from Beirut to Az Zahrani was cut in several places. French companies had begun limited repairs on that section of the line when in February 1984 violence broke out which halted the repairs.
|Lebanon’s various rail routes.|
The railways continued to be used when Lebanon came under French control, and were used extensively for military purposes in World War Two. Under British direction, the coastal line was linked to Haifa (now in Israel), and extended to Tripoli. All these lines were in standard gauge which meant it was theoretically possible to take the same train from Europe through to North Africa except for a train ferry across the Bosphorous.
When Lebanon gained independence, parts of the railway came under state control and these conglomerated in 1960 into the CEL (Chemin de Fer de l’Etat Libanais). The Lebanese Civil War, which spanned from 1975 to 1990, caused considerable damage to the railways in Lebanon. A 1974 article revealed that 1.05 metre DHP system was still fully working but uncompetitive and loss making. It was entirely steam operated at this point.
In 1983, Canadian consultants studied a possible revival of the coastal line, but due to security concerns, no plans went ahead. Following the Civil War, services stopped, though it was believed they had stopped several years earlier, and in 1997 the last regular train operations, carrying cement from Chekka to Beirut, stopped.
Since then, numerous proposals have been put forward to revive the railway system in Lebanon, but as of yet none have come to fruition. There are currently 600 people employed by the Lebanese government public transport service, with roughly half of these former railway workers that are now employed to protect the railway buildings, tracks, trains and other artefacts from vandals. A paper published by the Youth Economic Forum of Lebanon has found numerous positives and very few negatives for the revival of the rail system.
Elias Boutros Maalouf, originally from Ecuador, put together a study on the preservation of Lebanon’s railway heritage, called “Rayak Train Museum Proposal” in 2009. This document, which was produced in French, English and Arabic, describes a plan for a museum for all Lebanese railways. Elias, who is a co-founder of the Lebanese NGO Train/Train, has put forward proposals for two other railway heritage items and also to re-found the railway between the Lebanese coastal cities of Byblos and Batroun.
Elias said to The Independent, “We need a success story.” The proposed project, with a budget of £430,000, should only take a matter of months but the government remain reluctant to go forward with it. Reviving the train lines would take the pressure of Lebanon’s highly congested roads, which are only supplemented in very small amounts by any form of public transport.
|The desolate Riyaq Train Station in 2013.|
The EU’s European Investment Bank is conducting a study into the feasibility of reviving the Beirut-Tripoli line, the results of which should be published in 2016. The study is expected to cost under €2 million, and is funded by the Facility for Euro-Mediterranean Investment. This is not, however, the first attempt at reviving the railways. In 2002, a joint Syrian-Lebanese initiative went as far as buying new rails. But, due to lack of funding and political wrangling, the rails remain in storage.
Lebanon entered into the Agreement on International Railways in the Arab Mashreq in 2003 alongside Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Lebanon is included in the ideas for what is known as the Arab Mashreq International Railway, which includes 16 different routes covering 19,500km. These plans began in 1998 with a meeting in Beirut of the members of the United Nations’ Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (UN-ESCWA). When the Agreement was signed in 2003, more than 60% of the railway routes were yet to have been built.
The future of the Lebanese railways are uncertain and remain uncertain. Whether the Lebanese government will grasp that there is a demand for further public transport options in Lebanon, and whether they will hone their part of the Agreement on International Railways in 2003, is yet to be seen. Perhaps the European Investment Bank will decide it is economically feasible to back a revival of the railway. Perhaps Train/Train will get their way and Riyaq will get their railway museum. Only time will tell, but soon time will run out for the remnants of Lebanon’s railways, as before too long they will be completely inoperable.