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A stroll along Lebanon’s vanishing railways

Lebanon’s railway system, once connecting Europe to Africa, has been abandoned and forgotten since the beginning of the country’s civil war
Saadnayel’s municipality has started the restoration of its old station and an antique locomotive in Saadnayel station (MEE/Changiz. M Varzi)

The building’s main gateway is broken down. Clay roof tiles have partly fallen off and in some parts are covered with green grass. Mona al-Akal stands in front of the two-story building with yellow walls and a red gable roof. Her last visit here was about 45 years ago. The big, square holes in the second storey walls remind her of the windows that were once there, facing Lebanon’s main train factory in the northern city of Rayak.

The now abandoned Ain Sofar station (MEE/Changiz M. Varzi)

Mona remembers the time that her uncle, Aziz Abdallah Tabet, was the managing director of the Rayak Station and Train Factory. Her uncle lived in this building. Back then, the front garden was full of flowers, and the back garden was for growing vegetables. Today, nothing is left from that glorious era of rail transport in Lebanon.

One hundred and twenty years ago, the first steam train took passengers from Beirut, and after nine hours, they entered Rayak station. Now, the station is entirely forgotten. Foxes and owls live in the empty train factory. Plants and trees grow inside the buildings and the motionless locomotives.

Disused wagons in Tripoli station (MEE/Changiz M. Varzi)

In 1990, with the end of the 15-year civil war, many Lebanese hoped that trains would again run on the tracks. The end of the war coincided with the global return to railroad transport. But Lebanon’s railway, once connecting Europe to Africa, remains desolated, and no train runs over the 408 kilometres of railroad.

“Because of the highly corrupt nature of the Lebanese political system, the government and business elites were able to close down the railroads,” Eugene Sensenig-Dabbous, chair of the department of political science at Notre Dame University in Lebanon, told Middle East Eye.

Imperial power rivalry, world wars, regional conflicts, civil war and political factional confrontations have deeply influenced the rise and fall of rail transport in Lebanon.

The rise and fall of the railways

At the end of the 19th century, merchants and European powers were looking for new markets and territorial expansion in the East. The spread of rail transport was the focal point of this new world. In 1895, Lebanon’s first track was completed, connecting the port of Beirut to Damascus through Rayak.

After Beirut, a railway for commerce was constructed at the port of Tripoli. By June 1911, a railway connected Tripoli to Homs, but this line was short-lived. Ottoman Empire forces ripped up the Tripoli-Homs rails, looted stations and confiscated equipment during World War I. They used the removed rails and gear to complete the Damascus-Baghdad line, which had more military importance. This was not the last war that played a pivotal role in Lebanon’s railroad history.

The Second World War had a positive influence on Lebanon’s rail transport system. British troops built the Tripoli-Beirut-Naqoura line on the country’s coastline, linking to Haifa in Palestine, and ultimately, to Cairo in Egypt. The line had been necessary for the transport of British troops, but with the end of the war and the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the need vanished. Since then, a wall has blocked the tunnel at the end of the Tripoli-Naqoura line connecting Lebanon to Palestine. 

The Lebanese Civil War was the final nail in the coffin of Lebanon’s railway network. In 1975, with the outbreak of war, most of the trains were halted, and train stations were turned into barracks. The Syrian army occupied Rayak and Tripoli stations in the north and east of the country. During the 1982 invasion, Israelis finished off the stations and railway infrastructure in the south. 

Abandoned train tracks in Beirut's Geitawi neighborhood (MEE/Changiz M. Varzi)

Since 2007, Fadi Yeni Turk, photographer and filmmaker, has been documenting the history and current situation of Lebanon’s railways. In his small gallery on Beirut’s Mar Nicholas stairway, he shows photos of his eight-year walking excursions on the railways of his homeland.

“All warring factions made a profit from the railway network during the civil war,” Fadi says, viewing pictures of Syrian army bunkers reinforced by the rails from Lebanon’s tracks and small bridges that smugglers made using the steel ties near the Syrian border during and after the civil war.

However, the civil war was not the only cause for the suspension of rail transport in Lebanon. “It was something bigger than the civil war,” Elias Boutros Maalouf, co-founder and manager of Train Train NGO told MEE. “The main reason was corruption.”

Since 2010, the Train Train NGO has organised several photo exhibitions and talks to bring the issue of Lebanon’s railway system to public attention (MEE/Changiz M. Varzi)

Cars eclipse trains

The bullet-riddled wall in Bhamdoun’s train station shows the civil war’s unhealed wounds. But what is now killing the moribund station is not the war - it's the car. The highway that connects Beirut to Damascus passes through the Mount Lebanon village of Bhamdoun, and the old train station is located exactly in the middle of the highway’s workshop.

The highway’s constructors use the station as a depot for reinforcing bars and ironware. The train station lost its roof years ago, and now the walls are in peril. A big generator leans over one of the station’s walls, and a huge drilling rig is digging a well near the station’s water tank. Doorways and windows are now just empty frames.

The rivalry between the car and trains in Lebanon has existed since the 1950s. Back then, cars were transporting passengers and goods on the newly constructed Beirut-Damascus highway, while the country’s locomotives and rail technology were becoming dated.

The slow rack-and-pinion trains were no longer attracting people, and Lebanon’s railway system could not compete with cars without undergoing renovation. In December 1949, a report predicted “a strong probability that the railway lines in Lebanon will eventually disappear” because of inconvenient speed and price.

No one took the prediction seriously. Political vying, sectarian animosity, class conflict, and finally, the civil war left no place for taking care of the country’s railway. Even during the 1990s and the country’s reconstruction era, policymakers avoided the issue of railway reconstruction because of the influence of car dealers and highway construction companies.

Post civil war era

After the civil war, for a short while, the "Peace Train" ran between Dora and Byblos. In just 49 working days from 7 October 1991, the "'Peace Train" transported 14,727 passengers. That was the last time a locomotive moved on the country’s railway.

In 2002, the Ministry of Transport and Public Works decided to revive the Tripoli-Homs line. Again, the political confrontation between Lebanon and Syria obstructed the project. Other studies were also conducted by the Public Transport Authority and the European Union on the feasibility of restoring the Beirut-Byblos and Beirut-Tripoli lines, but all were in vain. Authorities have not shown interest in any of those projects.

Since 2010, the Lebanese NGO, Train Train, proposed several projects to restore the Rayak train station, the Byblos-Batroun line and Beirut’s Mar Mikhael station. The authorities’ response to the proposals was very simple: silence. Meanwhile, Maalouf raises public attention by organising talks, showing documentaries and launching photo exhibitions of Lebanon’s old trains.

In Maalouf’s opinion, the railway authorities do not respond to his projects for the same reason that they neglected the railway’s renovation in the 1960s and 1970s, which was “political rivalry and corruption”.

Beirut’s Mar Mikhael station is the perfect illustration of the authorities’ method of evaluating restoration proposals. A bunch of heavyweight bouncers guard the building, and the latest car models enter the station’s area at sunset. In 2014, the train station was turned into a fashionable open-air bar charging an average of $12 per drink. An antique locomotive has even been converted into a DJ booth.

In 2014, Mar Mikhael station was turned into an open-air bar and a high-class hangout (MEE/Changiz M. Varzi)

Lebanon’s only train station that still functions as a public space is found in the small town of Saadnayel, about 50 kilometres away from the fancy bar in Mar Mikhael. Four years ago, Saadnayel’s municipality started the restoration of its old station and an antique locomotive. In June 2015 the abandoned building was transformed into a library and reopened to the public. 

Despite the lack of attention to Lebanon’s railroad, Sensenig-Dabbous has hope for the restoration of the forgotten transport system.

On 11 May, at the premiere of the documentary On The Rails and the Trains for Lebanon photo exhibition, he quoted Mahatma Gandhi, who once said that when you pick up a hopeless cause, people firstly ignore you. Secondly, they laugh at you. Thirdly, they fight you, and fourthly you win. Concluding his speech Sensenig-Dabbous said, “I’m happy to say some people who do not like railways in this country are now fighting us. It means we are almost there.”