Off the rails
Lebanon’s long abandoned rail network gives an insight into another era. Founder of NGO Train Train, Elias Maalouf, shares his collected memories and vision for its revitalization –
It might take a stretch of the imagination to envisage a fully-functional rail network in Lebanon, but for the older generation the railway – active from the late nineteenth century until the civil war – is a nostalgic memory of Lebanon’s golden past. The extensive rail network, first built when Lebanon was under Ottoman rule, once connected Beirut to Haifa and Damascus, Tripoli to Homs and Rayak in the Bekaa Valley to Aleppo. In fact, the whole region was within reach by rail, opening up borders with the surrounding countries for travel and trade. Though the country’s rail network hasn’t been active since the beginning of the civil war (besides the Peace Train project which opened the Beirut-Chekka line in 1991) many of the country’s 50 train stations still remain intact and long-rusted rails can still be seen across the country, everywhere from Batroun to Beirut.
Elias Maalouf is the passionate figure behind NGO Train Train, founded in 2010 with the aim to preserve the heritage of the Lebanese railway and work on building new models for its eventual revitalization. The walls of his Jbeil office are filled with black and white photos of the railway’s colorful past and he’s documented the memories of the few remaining former railway workers in his upcoming documentary “Ya Train.”
Having been an advocate for Lebanon’s railways for almost a decade, Maalouf knows every train station across the country intimately. “We had four major train stations in Lebanon; Tripoli, Beirut, Malaka and Rayak. Malaka was built to be the principal train station in the Bekaa but when they built the line between Rayak and Aleppo, it became the biggest in the region,” he says. Besides being the transport hub that connected Lebanon to the Arab world, Europe and Africa, Rayak also became one of the most important train factories of its time. They would take apart, melt down, design and reassemble old steam trains, then given the plaque “Made in Rayak.”
The now abandoned train station of Rayak seems almost frozen in time. Rusted locomotives have become one with nature, steel rails still cut through overgrown fields and platforms once filled with passengers, remain empty. Its dilapidated faded orange buildings are monuments to another time, but the sheer size of the abandoned station and factory still impresses. “We lost 18 buildings in World War One and several buildings in World War Two, and until now there are still 70 buildings. That’s how big it was and still is,” Maalouf says. “We wish that train stations like the one in Rayak, Tripoli and Mar Mikhael could be turned into museums, but by experts, as restoration needs expertise.”
Tripoli Train Station, built in 1911, was once connected to Homs via a single track, and was the final stop of the Orient Express during the early-mid 20th Century. Located close to El Mina, Tripoli’s once grand station with Oriental arches can still be seen, though it was damaged by fighting in the ‘80s after the Syrian army claimed it in 1977. “For me they are all beautiful,” Maalouf says. “You have a train station in the middle of the forest in Arayah, next to Aley, which is amazing. The Mar Mikhael train station is also very beautiful.”
For Maalouf, bringing back the railway to Lebanon will not only ease transport issues but also help reunify the country. “Many people in Lebanon work on sectarian ideas, sectarian visions, we are working on a project that could unite people,” he said. “The main vision is to bring back a working transportation network.” Though the revitalization of the country’s railway seems a distant possibility, Train Train has worked hard to raise awareness of Lebanon’s railway and its importance for the future. Their exhibition of photographic archives – which toured the country from Beirut Airport to Beiteddine and Beirut Souks – has been seen by thousands of people. They’ve also toured schools and universities with a portable exhibition. “When we started talking about this project it was like science fiction, people didn’t believe it could happen. That’s why we went back into history and showed that 130 years ago we were able to do this.”
Next on Train Train’s agenda is a plan to clean and restore the rails between Batroun and Jbeil; a symbolic project that Maalouf predicts will take just three months to make a reality. “It’s proof to show that it’s not impossible for the rail lines to be refurbished. It will be a success story to push for more.” There are also hopes to transform some of the country’s remaining train stations into museums and create one central archive and research center in Beirut dedicated to the Lebanese railway.
“Everyone always asks ‘do we still have rails?’ But really it’s the simplest part of the railway; all you need for the return of the railway is the land,” Maalouf says. “And we still have all 402km of old land preserved. Whenever we [are ready] we can have the railway back.”