The Track Record of Railways in Lebanon (1890-2014): When Profit Trumps Public Benefit

2014-10-20    |   

The Track Record of Railways in Lebanon (1890-2014): When Profit Trumps Public Benefit

Lebanon’s stifling traffic crisis has turned into a daily ordeal for commuters. The lack of serious plans to improve public transportation has weighed down heavily on Lebanon’s economy as well. The need to set up and restore railways has returned as a topic of public discussion. This article reexamines the history of rail transport in Lebanon, including the establishment and development of this important sector.


This article does not aim to provide a historical exposition of the international power struggle that led to the establishment of major railway lines, such as the Hejaz or Baghdad railways. Rather, it examines the international and local circumstances that allowed, at a certain stage, for turning Lebanon –and Beirut in particular– into a pioneering economic and commercial center in the region by building railroads. It also examines the causes of this sector’s deterioration and eventual breakdown given that before the eruption of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, the latter had connected Lebanon to the world.


European and Beiruti Bourgeois Interests Converge to Set up Rail Transport


The idea of creating a network of vehicle-friendly roads that would provide transportation from the city of Beirut to the Mutasarrifate of Mount Lebanon began to be seriously discussed in the early 1860s. Yet, the idea of building a road connecting Beirut to Damascus materialized later, when trade between the two cities flourished. At the time, merchandise was transported by mules, and the journey [between Beirut and Damascus] would take three to four days.


Comte Edmond de Perthuis, a former French naval officer who had moved to Beirut, became determined to build such a road, and in 1857, obtained a concession from the Ottoman government [Sublime Porte]. This arrangement changed the lives of Beirut’s inhabitants, as it largely contributed to the growth of trade with other cities. Realizing the importance of his project, de Perthuis entered into negotiations with French-financed transportation concessionary companies to build a new port of Beirut in 1889. The concession to build the port was eventually granted to Yusuf Mutran. A businessman from Baalbek, Mutran had also managed to obtain a concession to build a railroad between Damascus and the Hauran region in southwest Syria. As it later transpired, Mutran had merely been a broker, and in the same year, he sold the concession to the French company that took over management of the port.


Beirut, which was declared an Ottoman province (Vilayet) in 1888, became the economic capital of the Mount Lebanon Mutasarrifate and the gateway to the Levant. Its commercial growth allowed for the establishment of a services sector. The city turned into a major commercial center, both in terms of the quality of its services and the volume of goods traded in its port.


During this period in the late 19th century, European powers began to discuss the idea of building railroads in Ottoman provinces, which led to fierce competition between France and Britain over obtaining concessions to do so. The Europeans were looking for new markets and outlets for financial investment, which drove them to expand towards those provinces. At the time, the Ottoman Empire was suffering from a severe political and financial crisis, which paved the way for direct European interference in its political and economic affairs.

Meanwhile, in the Levant, the interests of local merchants had changed. They now sought to develop means of transportation, and rail transport in particular, in order to gain control of the trade of natural resources in the interior. In order to start laying out serious plans to build railroads, numerous European engineers were sent to survey the region. Beirut’s notables realized that the [new] port would not be sufficient for their city to commercially surpass competitors, such as Tripoli and Haifa. Having realized the importance of establishing a regional network for the growth of transportation services, these notables once again allied with the competing British and French, as they had for the port. They turned to the provincial council to convey their request to the Sublime Porte to connect the port of Beirut to the interior through railroads, so as to facilitate the transport of goods and people.


At the time, Beirut faced rival plans from Tripoli. In 1890, French engineer Edouard Coze suggested making Tripoli the terminus of a railroad connecting the city to the Syrian coastline. The city governor of Tripoli agreed to the proposal, and in turn, presented it to the city’s notables whom agreed to raise the money needed to fund it. The process took years of negotiations until Istanbul, as I discuss below, consented to granting the concession to build the railroad in the early 1900s.


Beirut also confronted the “threat” of Haifa. British traveler Laurence Oliphant, had suggested building a railroad from Haifa to Damascus in the 1880s. Along with de Perthuis, Beirut’s notables realized that this project would shift the trade of wheat from the mountains of the Hauran to the port of Haifa, and deprive their own port of one of its main sources of revenue. Meeting with the governor (Vali) of the province, the Beiruti delegation skillfully managed to convince him that, by crossing Ottoman territory, the Haifa-Damascus railroad would have the British trespassing on the property of the Sublime Porte. In 1898, the Porte forced the British to stop working on this railroad.


Putting the Project on the Right Track


With the Haifa plan scuttled, all that Beirut’s merchants needed was to find the necessary funding to start building the railroad. They held another meeting in early February 1890 and decided to turn to Hassan Bayhum, one of Beirut’s top notables, who approved of their project. He filed a request for a concession with Istanbul and obtained one in the form of an imperial decree (firman) issued on June 17, 1891. As holder of the concession to build a railroad connecting Beirut to Damascus, with exploitation rights for 99 years, Bayhum created the Société Ottomane de la Voie Ferrée Économique de Beyrouth à Damas, S.A. (Ottoman Economic Railway Company from Beirut to Damascus, Ltd.). As a result, the two main railway lines, Beirut-Damascus and Damascus-Hauran (known as the Damascus-Muzayrib line), fell into the hands of contractors from Beirut and Baalbek, namely, Hassan Bayhum and Yusuf Mutran.


In May 1893, the Sultanate expressed the desire to approve de Perthuis’ request to extend the railroad from Damascus to the Euphrates. Mutran was again granted a 99-year concession to build and exploit a railroad connecting Damascus to Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Birecik (a city in the Southeast of modern Turkey). As with the Damascus-Hauran line, Mutran relinquished his concession in 1893 to the Société des Chemins de Fer de Beyrouth-Damas-Hawran en Syrie (Ottoman Railway Company of Beirut-Damascus-Hauran in Syria, Ltd.). Bayhum also sold his concession to de Perthuis in 1892, and the latter merged the two companies in 1893 under the name of “La Société Anonyme Ottomane des Chemins de Fer de Beyrouth-Damas-Hauran et Biredjik sur l’Euphrate” (Economic Ottoman Railway Company of Beirut-Damascus-Hauran-Birecik on the Euphrates). The railroad was officially inaugurated in 1895 with grand celebrations, coinciding with Sultan Abdul Hamid II’s birthday.


DHP and NBT Connect the Territory of Modern Lebanon to the World


DHP or the Damascus-Hama et Prolongements [Extension]: Work on this line officially started in 1895, but the company could not bear the financial losses it suffered during its early stages. Thus, in 1901, the Ottoman Imperial Bank, an Anglo-French financial venture, bought the company and turned it into the Société Ottomane du Chemin de Fer Économique de Damas-Hama et Prolongements (Ottoman Economic Railway Company of Damascus-Hama and Extensions) (DHP).


Meanwhile, Tripoli’s merchant elites decided to follow Beirut’s example. They drew up lists of contributors, formed their own “committee of representatives”, and sent a delegation to the governor (vali) of the province with a petition for a railroad connecting their city to Homs. In March 1910, the Ottoman government issued an imperial decree (firman) granting the concession [to build and exploit] this railroad to the DHP company, which started to build and effectively began exploiting it in June 1911. Both the cities of Tripoli and Homs benefited from this railroad. Their trade expanded, and it became possible to import and export, after Tripoli was connected to the Akkar plain and the grain-producing areas of Northern Syria.


It should be pointed out here that the Ottoman Imperial Bank also decided to finance a railroad connecting Riyaq to Hama, which was inaugurated on August 20, 1902. The DHP thus succeeded at covering 681km of railroad, provided for the transport of passengers and merchandise.


In 1930, La Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits et des Grands Express Européens (International Sleeping-Car and European Grand Expresses Company) (CIWL) inaugurated the Taurus Express train, which became renowned for its luxury and cutting-edge technology. This train successfully connected London to Cairo through the Near East, in a trip of only seven days. Taurus Express trains carried passengers three times a week from the Riyaq train station in the Beqaa valley to Beirut and Damascus, and twice a week from Aleppo and Tripoli. The issue of reaching Cairo became a major stumbling block for the company, which never managed to build a railroad connecting Tripoli to Haifa.[1]


NBT or the Naqoura-Beirut-Tripoli Railroad: This problem was solved in 1942, when the British built the Naqoura-Beirut-Tripoli railroad to transport their troops from North to South, and vice-versa, during World War II. Connecting Europe to Africa, the Tripoli-Haifa railroad remained operational for only six years, until the Arab-Israeli War erupted in 1948. While the Naqoura-Beirut segment of the railroad was removed, its remaining parts continued to operate and contributed to the transport of fuel oil, cement, cattle and wheat. Twice a week, Beirut would be the destination of the Orient Express train, carrying passengers from London to Lebanon, and of an automotrice – a type of electric train that ran on the Beirut-Aleppo railway.[2]


Nationalizing the Railway


On June 6, 1956, the Lebanese state repossessed the railroads and extensions of the DHP company, and merged the latter with NBT under the name “Chemin de Fer de l’État Libanais” (Lebanese State Railways) (CEL). Additionaly, on April 14, 1961, the Office des Chemins de Fer de l’État Libanais et du Transport en Commun de Beyrouth et de sa Banlieue (Lebanese State Railway and Public Transportation Authority for Beirut and its Suburb) was created by virtue of decree no. 6479. Under President Fouad Chehab, the Lebanese government had purchased it from the French DHP company for LL (Lebanese pounds) 10 million [US$3 million]*. Its name was later modified to Office des Chemins de Fer et des Transports en Commun (Railway and Public Transportation Authority) (OCFTC), and it was entrusted with the management and exploitation of the railways. Its board of directors was headed by a Director General and included a government-appointed commissioner. The OCFTC is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, and under the supervision of the Civil Service Board and the Ministry of Finance.


The railway continued to function despite the modest means at its disposal, which had not been renewed since its establishment in the early 20th century. During this period, the automobile revolution “invaded” the local market and affected the movement of passengers by train, and successive governments considered [the railway] sector to provide insufficient revenue. Funding ceased and new equipment was not purchased to develop the railways. In 1964, the OCFTC stopped hiring new employees, which reduced the number of employees in this sector, as well as the quality of maintenance.[3] It should be noted that the number of OCFTC employees was reduced from 1,300 before the civil war to about 200 after it ended.[4]


Trains Continue to Run Despite the War


The Lebanese civil war erupted in 1975 and trains stopped carrying passengers. Yet, they continued to transport primary resources and merchandise on an irregular basis. Those operating the railways continued to run trains on the Southern line to transport fuel to electric power plants, which prevented power outages in Lebanon throughout the war.[5] As a result of the fighting, [OCFTC] facilities, equipment, buildings, vehicles, and machinery suffered massive damage. There were also numerous instances of encroachment on public property held by the OCFTC.


Some of the incidents that affected the railway directly were as follows. On February 15, 1979, for instance, three bombs exploded in Koura and the movement of trains from Tripoli to Beirut broke down as a result.[6] Meanwhile, in the South, the transport of fuel by railway stopped in December 1983, as a result of shelling part of the railroad by the Israeli military.[7]


There were also several instances of theft of railroad tracks during the war. In September 1989, railroad tracks were stolen from the Beqaa valley and shipped to Pakistan on board a Turkish vessel from the port of Tripoli, with the complicity of Syrian security services. The deal was listed as trade in “scrap metal”. At the time, Lebanese army General Edgar Maalouf, the Minister of Public Works in General Michel Aoun’s government, sent a letter to the public prosecutor at the Court of Cassation, Joseph Freiha, urging him to take immediate action to prosecute the perpetrators and bring them to justice.[8]


Such incidents did not prevent the Lebanese state and the OCFTC from proposing plans to rebuild and restore the damaged railroads, and to operate trains once again. In 1983, the OCFTC asked French company Sofrerail to conduct a study on rebuilding the Beirut-Saida railway line for passenger transport. The OCFTC even started implementing part of the project, purchasing trains and providing color light signals. The project was subcontracted in a public bid, with a French company handling the restoration of the railroad, and a Lebanese-British company setting up new signals. The OCFTC later purchased six used trains from Germany, but the Israeli invasion of Beirut put a stop to the work and all the equipment remained in OCFTC warehouses.[9]  


In a separate initiative, the government decided to inaugurate a passenger transport railway line between Beirut and Batroun in early 1985, roughly ten years after it was interrupted. However, as a result of the Mountain War (harb al-jabal), which had erupted late in the summer of 1983, maintenance stopped and some parts of the railroad were damaged. In spite of this, the Beirut-Tripoli railroad remained in acceptable condition. The increased fighting did not allow for passenger transport as had been planned, but trains were used to transport fuel from the region of Dora to the electric power plant in Zouk.[10]


Meanwhile, plans were underway to improve transportation in Lebanon despite the ongoing war. In 1985, French expert Bernard Definglant presented Lebanese authorities with a plan to set up a national and international subway line – connected to Syria and later to Turkey. Taking into account Lebanon’s population density and mountainous terrain, Definglant’s study stressed the importance of this project. The figures it provided proved that setting up such a line would cost much less than building and restoring international roads between the two countries, as building a railroad would [only] cost as much as restoring seven highways. However, at a cost of US$3 billion, the Lebanese government considered the project too costly, and the funds necessary to implement it were not provided.[11]


Post-War: Failed Attempts and a Political Decision to Stop Rail Transport


Train operations were completely halted when the battle of Liberation (harb al-tahrir) started in 1989. The situation did not change until 1991, when the Lebanese government decided to run what was dubbed the “Peace Train”. On October 1, 1991, it was announced that trains would once again carry passengers between Dora and Jounieh. Then-Interior Minister Shawki Fakhoury declared that “the train has left the station”, and spoke of an ambitious plan being prepared by the government. The plan involved running trains between Dora and al-Abed Square, and then between Jiyeh and Zahrani. He also informed citizens that there would be six to seven trips per day, aimed at providing transportation for workers and employees to their workplace.[12]


The line was effectively activated on October 7, 1991 between Dora and Byblos Over 49 working days, whereby the train transported 14,727 passengers. According to OCFTC statistics, there were 401 trips by train in October and November alone, during which LL2,544,500 [US$2,825]* were collected.[13] Lasting for about a year, this experiment proved successful despite the obstacles faced by the OCFTC. Such obstacles most prominently included encroachments on the length of the railroad, as well as the poor conditions of tracks and trains which required extensive repairs and improvements. Afterwards, the trains stopped transporting passengers, as it required maintenance as well as new wagons and equipment. It nevertheless continued to transport merchandise until 1994.[14]


The return of peace encouraged the proposal of plans to rehabilitate and reactivate the railways, especially as Beirut had become the country’s main administrative and economic center. Among such plans was that of reactivating the Tyre-Beirut-Tripoli railway line, with the aim of “connecting the cities to one another”, in the words of the then-Transportation Minister Omar Miskawi.[15] In February 1994, the government turned once again to Sofrerail to conduct a study of the plan. In its report, the French company stated that 30% of the Lebanese would stop using their cars in order to save time and money, and gain a peace of mind. It asserted that citizens would spend no more than 10% of the minimum wage on transportation by train, while [most] employees spend about four times as much on transportation by car.[16] Yet, like others, this project remained on hold at parliament, under the pretext of not being able to provide the necessary funds, estimated at about US$600 million. Except for a few studies that never saw the light of day, no plans to reactivate public transportation were ever discussed again after this period, and transportation by train was abandoned in favor of building highways and bridges.


Hopes of reviving this vital public utility returned in 2005, when the decision was made to set up a 35km railway line connecting the port of Tripoli to the Lebanese-Syrian border in Abboudieh. Connected at this point to Syria’s railway network, which in turn runs as far as the Syrian-Iraqi and Syrian-Turkish borders, such a line was meant to revitalize the port of Tripoli and exports to neighboring countries.[17] Yet, once again, the project was not implemented, this time in the wake of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, and increasingly strained relations between Lebanon and Syria.


More recently, the Directorate General of Land and Maritime Transport presented a study claiming that the Beirut-Tabarja railway line could be made operational again at a cost not exceeding US$250 million. The project’s 14% yearly profitability rate would allow for covering the cost of investment in a mere seven years. So far, however, this project has not even reached the stage of serious discussions.[18]


In conclusion, the interests of Beirut and Tripoli’s bourgeoisie converged with those of European companies to build railways in both cities. Seeking to preserve and boost the latter’s commercial status and vital regional role, local notables worked together with the Europeans and succeeded at connecting the two cities to the world. Later, however, under the pretext that it did not yield sufficient revenue, the Lebanese state ignored the social and economic benefits of rail transport. Its subsequent neglect and lack of interest in this sector gradually led to its collapse. The Lebanese civil war, as well as the successive governments that followed in its wake, completed the process.


Those in power did not realize the importance of the role played by rail transport in boosting economic growth and facilitating local and international trade. Trains would facilitate the transport of merchandise from the coastal ports to the Lebanese interior and neighboring countries. They would also provide the Lebanese with a comfortable means of transportation that would spare them the “disaster” they experience on their roads today. Moreover, the lack of means of transportation has driven the Lebanese to congregate in and around Beirut. In the absence of alternatives that would encourage investment and job opportunities outside the city, Lebanon’s capital has turned into its sole economic and administrative center. Under these worsening circumstances, the state remains incapable of offering practical solutions that would develop the public transport sector, and thus alleviate the burden imposed on citizens – both economically and in terms of their health and psychological well-being.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.




[2] References for this section: Jens Hanssen, Fin de Siècle Beirut: The Making of an Ottoman Provincial Capital, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005; Leila Fawaz, “The Beirut-Damascus Road: Connecting the Syrian Coast to the Interior in the Nineteenth Century” in T. Philip (eds.), The Syrian Land in the 18th and 19th Century: Integration and Fragmentation, Stuttgart: Steiner Verlag, 1998; Shereen Khairallah, Railways in the Middle East: 1856-1948, Beirut: Librairie du Liban, 1991; Samir Kassir, History of Beirut, Beirut: Dar an-Nahar, 2007.

[3] See: Rita Sharara’s, “The Railway Returns to the Coastal Line: New and Fast Trains Between Tyre and Tripoli, and 30% of the Lebanese Giving up their Cars”, an-Nahar, March 22, 1994.

[4] See Note 3 above, idem.

[5] See: Emir Abdallah Chehab’s, “Report on Railways and Public Transportation: What was Stolen, Destroyed and Looted”, an-Nahar, 1990.

[6] “Three Bombs in Koura Shut Down the Railway”, an-Nahar, February 16, 1979.

[7] “Fuel Oil Transported by Tank Trucks After Railway Breakdown”, an-Nahar, December 8, 1983.

[8] “Maalouf Demands the Prosecution of Those who Stole Railroad Tracks and Shipped them Abroad”, ad-Diyar, September 22, 1989.

[9] See: Mirna Aramouni’s, “The Beirut Grand Station Remembers its Youth and Hopes to Be Restored Soon. Officials Pay No Heed and Employees Cry Out: Don’t Turn it into a Souk!”, an-Nahar, September 25, 1997.

[10] Les Autorails Relieront Beyrouth à Jbeil en 35 Minutes [Railcars Connect Beirut to Jbeil in 35 Minutes], L’Orient Le Jour, October 24, 1984.

[11] See Note 3 above, idem.

[12] See: Bahaa al-Ramli’s, “45 Minutes from Dora to Jounieh: ‘Peace Train’ Off to a Difficult Start and Passenger Transport Delayed Until Monday”, an-Nahar, October 2, 1991.

[13] “The Railways in 49 Working Days: 14727 Passengers and LL2,544,500”, an-Nahar, January 1, 1992.


[15] See Note 3 above, idem.

[16] See Note 3 above, idem.

[17] See: Rand al-Khatib’s, “Lebanese-Syrian Negotiations to Begin Work at the Start of 2006: Rehabilitating the Tripoli-Abboudieh Railroad Awaits Final Word on Work Prices and Project’s Final Cost”, al-Mustaqbal, December 28, 2005.
[18] See: Mohammad Wehbe’s, “Train Connection Between Tabarja and Beirut”, al-Akhbar, June 28, 2014.

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