Driving along the railway
Sunday June 26, 2011. We left the city quite early and waved at Mar Mikhael’s rail yards, as we were approaching Beirut’s northern highway. Nada, who grew up in Tripoli, suggested we drive along the coastal road bordering what remains from the railway that once connected Beirut to Tripoli.
I am not quite sure how an interest develops, but I am certain that it grows with a person. Trains have always fascinated me: the feeling of a travelling landscape, and looking through the window while the train transports me from where I am to where I want to be. When I was barely three, I went on a trip from Aswan to Alexandria with my parents, and the only memory that stayed with me is that of sleeping on the train.
Trains have always fascinated me: the feeling of a travelling landscape, and looking through the window while the train transports me from where I am to where I want to be.
Driving to Tripoli, I noticed that my travel companion was in a reverie of her own. I didn’t wish to intrude, but when we reached the Kalamoun area, her sense of smell awaked and she remembered orange blossom fields during springtime. She recalled that students from the Kalamoun ranked amongst the first in the Baccalaureate exams, and that they would study along the rail tracks on their way to school. We laughed and wondered if studying along railways was related to their exceptional academic performance.
For our first stop, we decided to indulge ourselves with sweets. It was lunchtime, but still, how could we have resisted cheese knafeh and Znoud el Sit. After lunch we were persuaded by relatives to have ice cream at the Mina, Tripoli’s harbour. Mahmoud, who is 10 years old, looked perplexed and asked: ‘But why are you going to visit an old train station that doesn’t work?’
When we reached the Kalamoun area, her sense of smell awaked and she remembered orange blossom fields during springtime.
I explained to him that Tripoli’s train station is celebrating its one hundred anniversary this year (it was built in 1911) and that it has a group of friends. Indeed, the Friends of Tripoli Railway Station had strived to open the train station to the public for the first time since the late 1970s, and had organised guided walks and an outdoor concert on June 25 and 26.
Arriving at the train station, I imagined travelers in the 1930s waiting at the entrance to get on board, when we were requested to wait in the exact same area for the start of the walking tour.
Arriving at the train station, I imagined travelers in the 1930s waiting at the entrance to get on board.
Nada interrupted my daydreaming, and told me she had a friend at school that lived in one of the houses inside the train station. A lady waiting for the beginning of the tour added: ‘Aren’t you talking about May? Her father worked for the railway authority at the time’. We exchanged numbers and the lady promised to put us in touch with May.
We heard a whistle and our guide, a volunteer from the Friends of Tripoli Railway Station, invited us into the station. We crossed from one side of the rail tracks to the other and our journey through time began.
We crossed from one side of the rail tracks to the other and our journey through time began.
Towards the end of 19th century, in 1891, a French company obtained a concession from the Ottoman Empire to build the Beirut-Damascus railway. Beirut-Rayak, the first railway line in the Middle East began operating on August 3 1895, and was managed by the DHP Damascus-Hama and Extensions Company (Damas-Hama et Prolongements).
The story was slightly different for Tripoli’s railway station. Local entrepreneurs initiated the project through a joint venture. They established an anonymous company to fund the railway construction works on the Tripoli-Homs branch, which began operating in 1911. In the 1930’s, the Taurus Express, a night train left Istanbul once a week, stopping in Syria’s Aleppo and terminating in Tripoli. Its proximity to the harbour, a strategic choice for the railway station, contributed to the area’s economic growth. Goods arriving at Tripoli’s port were distributed via the railway.
British forces in Palestine completed the Beirut-Haifa branch in 1942, and therefore Beirut-Tripoli followed on December 18th of that same year.
Interrupting his narration, our guide pointed out to two German locomotives. The G7 had been designed in 1895, and the G8 either in 1901 or in 1906. According to his sources, both feature in the Treaty of Versailles (signed on July 28, 1919) as reparations owed by the Ottomans to the French. He added that in 1917, during the course of the First World War, Jamal Pasha had ordered the removal of parts of the railway between Tripoli and Homs to complete works on the Damascus-Baghdad branch due to its strategic military importance. But, in 1919, the DHP had regained ownership of the railways and restored the Tripoli-Homs line, which resumed normal service in 1921.
British forces in Palestine completed the Beirut-Haifa branch in 1942, and therefore Beirut-Tripoli followed on December 18th of that same year. After World War Two, the cement trade flourished and the railway traffic was extensive between Chekka and Beirut, ensuring the distribution of cement.
After independence, Lebanon bought the railways within its borders, and in 1961 the Lebanese state railway company was established (CEL, Chemin de Fer de l’Etat Libanais). During the 1960s, train journeys became very time consuming in comparison to those done by cars and buses, which had become more popular. Weekend excursionists often were the sole passengers on board the trains. The railway system no longer catered for modern travel needs in a country with expanding urban sprawl.
The railways witnessed the onset of civil war in Lebanon (1975-1990), and the changing geopolitical considerations in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict prevented the development of a regional railway system. Trains were seldom target of bomb attacks, but despite common belief, the last train in Lebanon ran between Chekka and Beirut in 1997.
Trains were seldom target of bomb attacks, but despite common belief, the last train in Lebanon ran between Chekka and Beirut in 1997.
Towards 1976, the Syrian military established a base at Tripoli’s train station. Its railways were stolen and sold in the informal market, bullets were fired into its steam locomotives, and its buildings ravaged. And ever since, like the sleeping beauty, the train station delved into a deep sleep. Shrubs coiled around its rusting machinery perhaps to protect it from the decay of time. Birds became its sole companions.
Wishes for the future
The Friends of Tripoli Railway Station is a non-governmental, not-for-profit volunteer lobbying group attempting to preserve Tripoli’s train station. They believe that the station should be classified as national heritage by the Ministry of Culture to protect and salvage its history.
Our guide left us reflect on the thought, but we decided to sneak into another group, thinking that we may perhaps gather some extra information regarding the railways, and indeed we met the group’s coordinator. He told us that back in 2002, the Ministry of Transport and Public Works had planned to rehabilitate the Tripoli-Abboudieh-Homs branch but that the political tensions between Lebanon and Syria prevented the completion of the project.
We stumbled on a pile of abandoned steel rails and concrete sleepers below a Ficus tree, under which children had gathered for a drawing session.
Our walk had started at the travellers’ rest house. It took us inside trains, through a repair workshop, up in the sky looking at the water tower crane, and almost deep into the foundations of a railway turntable, a device for turning railroad rolling stock. We stumbled on a pile of abandoned steel rails and concrete sleepers below a Ficus tree, under which children had gathered for a drawing session.
I stood there, thinking that Tripoli’s railway station had become an open public space over a weekend in July. This was very similar to the museum park concept that I had envisioned for Mar Mikhael railway station in Beirut. If this was possible for a day or two, then surely there was hope! I thought of the Peace Train that was driven by the enthusiastic Railway Authority employees in October 1991 between Chekaa and Beirut. I remembered Mr Assi, the head of the railroad workers syndicate, saying that the train whistle was symbol of peace.
How can a railway system simply stop, just like that, without legislation?
As our day was drawing to an end, we waved goodbye to the train station and to its friends, hoping to come back soon and hear a real train whistle. Still many questions were lingering in my mind. How can a railway system simply stop, just like that, without legislation? Will the young Mahmoud ever ride a train in Lebanon, fulfilling the dream of Mr Assi? What is the fate of 401 kilometres of railways in Lebanon? Will clientism remain the status quo? Will Lebanon’s corrupt governance system continue to allow the construction of beach resorts on the railways?
These are questions that I shall keep on asking. We returned to Beirut, and Nada’s phone rang; it was May, the girl who lived in the train station. They agreed to meet, and I said I’d join them of course, to listen to their stories and keep the memory of the train station alive.
The Arabic version of this article was originally published in the Tripoli newspaper Al-Inshaa.