The Broader Picture: Network Middle East

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The Independent Culture
BEHIND the wreckage of Beirut's old central station, the ghost trains of Lebanon still wait to be coaled up for the 1,500ft-high rack-and-pinion railway line over the Barouk mountains to Rayak, the old terminus of the original Orient Express. Great German Winterthur tank engines with '1906' engraved on their cabs, their green livery streaked with rust, steam gauges corroded above the iron footplates, bushes growing through their wheels, stand beside trains of bullet-pocked carriages purchased at the turn of the century from the railways of the British Raj. Even today, almost 20 years after the Lebanese civil war tore up the tracks and smashed the pretty French-built stations, oil bleeds out of the old Leviathans.

They are the final fruits of the railway co-operation between the German and Ottoman Empires that sent British spies scurrying to the Middle East on the eve of the First World War, the last remnants of the great age of Middle East steam which Lawrence of Arabia did so much to destroy in the deserts of Transjordan. In the northern Lebanese port of Tripoli, a set of huge French-built 4-6-2 steam locos - specially built for the old Tripoli-Homs Ottoman railway system - are rotting away in an overgrown marshalling yard, bullet-holes peppering their boilers, a shell-hole through the cab of one giant loco. A wall of rotting sand-bags, a PLO front line more than a decade ago, lies before the dank interior of the engine sheds. In a siding, trees have grown through the wagons of a goods train near Tripoli's gutted station.

Dr Elias Choueiri, Lebanese general director of a railway system that no longer exists, has plans to build a brand new double-track 60mph railway from Tripoli to the old Roman port of Tyre, a project that would connect with Israeli state railways when a Lebanese-Israeli peace is eventually signed. But there will be no place for the old steam locos of Lebanon. 'We're hoping some British enthusiast will come along and buy them,' he says. 'I know how the British love steam trains. Heaven knows if they would still work.'

Sepia photos depict the Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm arriving in Beirut in 1898 to ride the steam train over the mountains to Baalbek. Tinted postcards show the locomotives taking on water in the foothills above Beirut. It's not difficult to guess the sales pitch the Lebanese might apply: 'For Sale: the trains Lawrence never derailed.'

Prospective buyers could even inherit the archives of the old Turkish railway system: sets of blue-laminated papers containing the original German blueprints of the steam engines, the papers - now lying beneath debris on the floor of a wrecked goods wagon behind Beirut station - dispatched to Beirut from the 'Vulcanwerke locomotive manufacturers of Hamburg and Stettin'. They were sent in the days when Stettin was part of Germany rather than Poland, when Beirut was in Syria, when Israel was Palestine and when Lebanon's railways were the envy of the Middle East.

(Photographs omitted)

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