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Plans to revive Lebanon’s ghost railways gather steam

While some of Lebanon's train stations have been transformed into night clubs or tourist sites, the country's railway system could be revived at the end of the Syrian civil war to provide supplies to cities such as Homs and Damascus.
A general view shows rusted locomotives on January 11, 2010 at a defunct train station in the northern Lebanese coastal city of Tripoli, one of several unused railway tracks that were destroyed or badly damaged during the Lebanese civil war, even though their reactivation can bring a solution to traffic jam problems in most of Lebanon's major cities according to experts. AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)

Lebanon's train stations have not seen a train depart since the 1990s, and Beirut’s central station was turned into an open-air nightclub in 2014, with a DJ booth added to an old locomotive.

“When I was young, my family used to tell me stories about the trains in Beirut, so I decided to rent the station and give it a new life,” Alain Hasbani, the co-owner of Trainstation Mar Mikhael, told Al-Monitor.

Hasbani simply added a bar counter, chairs and tables to the space. The mood gets festive at night, but few partygoers realize the importance of this historic location that was the hub of the railways in the Middle East in the 19th century.

“Those old railroad cars look really nice — it gives an industrial touch to the bar but surely this is only decoration, right?” asked Lara Khoury, a young Lebanese woman who enjoys coming here for drinks.

Like Lara, most other patrons at Trainstation Mar Mikhael think the railroad cars and tracks are the decor of the bar. In general, the Lebanese know very little about their country’s former railway system.

As the Ottoman Empire was weakening, foreign experts were given economic concessions to modernize the country's infrastructure. This is how Edmond de Perthuis, a French aristocrat and former navy officer, came to build and run a railway line connecting Damascus to Beirut with the first train departing in 1895. The journey took just under 9 hours to travel the 147 kilometers (91 miles) that separate the two cities. It was also the first train journey in the region.

“This railway has had a stiff climb over the main range of the Lebanon Mountains coming from Beirut […] it continues over to the Anti-Lebanon range to Damascus, and the rack and pinion devices are needed still, for that city is some 2,000 feet above sea level," journalist Roswell Rand wrote in a 1916 New York Times article.

Other testimonies and pictures describe a beautiful ride through fields of olive trees and fruit orchards; merchants would wait for the passengers at each station hoping to sell their local produce.

Two other lines were built: one in 1902 that connected Beirut to Homs in Syria, and the other in 1911 that linked Tripoli to Homs. By 1930, the Lebanese railway was also connected to the famous Orient Express network; the luxurious sleeper cars arrived from cities in Europe to Istanbul, and three times a week set off toward Damascus and Beirut.

The expansion of the Lebanese railway took a significant turn with the start of World War II. The Allies, who needed to move their troops in the region as fast as possible, built a new line along the seaside that linked the Lebanese coastal cities and traveled to Haifa in Palestine and up to Egypt.

The railway project, however, was short-lived. The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 caused a shutdown of the southern Lebanese border. The Israelis bombed the bridge and a train tunnel near Naqoura for fear of an Arab invasion using the tracks from the north. Up until today, this zone, now under the control of the United Nations, contains the remains of the former bridge that still hangs in the air above the sea.

With private vehicles becoming more common in the 1960s, trains become less popular. Travelers realized that a car ride was often up to four times faster than the train, especially for mountain destinations.

The Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) was the final blow to the Lebanese railway system. In 1976, virtually all the trains came to a halt. The train tracks were severely damaged by the fighting, and many of the stations were turned into military bases.

Elias Maalouf, who grew up in Ecuador, lives in the village of Rayak, in the central Bekaa Valley. The history of Lebanon or its trains mattered little to him. It was only as he was filming a documentary about the retreat of the Syrian army in 2005 — which had occupied Lebanon since 1976 — that he learned about the history of the Lebanese railway system.

"I was filming Syrian soldiers leaving a military base, located in the old train station of Rayak. I saw one of them burn documents in an old wagon, so I ran to get closer. I saw he was destroying military archives. There was shooting around me so I had to leave, and of course when I came back it was too late. To this day, I feel guilty and I promised myself that I would protect the history of the Lebanese trains,” he told Al-Monitor.

In 2010, he founded a nongovernmental organization called Train/Train, which advocates the rehabilitation of some parts of the Lebanese rail network and the creation of a train museum in Rayak.

The end of the war in neighboring Syria would one day mean that the Lebanese economy would get a boost. According to World Bank estimations, the reconstruction efforts will cost at least $170 billion, and Lebanon is anticipating an increase in trade.

The northern city of Tripoli is already gearing itself up to become the main point of entry toward Syria. The city's port is undergoing a massive extension and a Special Economic Zone is expected to be launched in the near future. Old roads are giving way to brand-new highways, and there is serious talk of rehabilitating the rail network toward Homs.

Since 2014, the project has been in the hands of the Council for Development and Reconstruction, which has dealt with all of Lebanon’s infrastructure projects since the end of the civil war.

"It is a question of months. We are talking about it every day,” said Toufic Dabbousi, the president of Tripoli’s Chamber of Commerce, in an interview to the local press. According to him, negotiations are underway with potential Chinese investors.

Regardless of when the Syrian conflict actually ends, Ziad Nasr, the head of the National Railway and Public Transportation Authority, claims that rehabilitating the train line to Homs has become a priority. ”The project has been given a high priority,” he told the local press. “We believe it is very important for this line to be implemented, done and ready.”

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