Lebanon dreams of peaceful connections

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Beirut - Just opposite Abdullah Chehab's desk is a sheaf of Cellophane- covered files that may constitute one of the biggest - and, sadly, the emptiest - dreams in railway history. As Mr Chehab opens page after page of maps, a brand-new railway network for post-war Lebanon runs across the paper.

It snakes, green and red, through the ancient Crusader port of Byblos, follows the permanent way laid down by the Royal Engineers and Australian army in 1941, curls inland through the Hizbollah slums of south Beirut, then streaks south to the port of Tyre, scarcely 12 miles from the Israeli border. The two-track, 120-kph electric railway would cost pounds 329m.

Reality, however, is just a platform away. For Mr Chehab, who rejoices in the title of Director-General of Lebanese State Railways, does not have a single working train. The closest locomotives to his office stand only a hundred yards from his door, rust-covered and weed-enshrouded, the pride of the Ottoman Empire's 19th-century Levantine railway system, pock-marked with 20th-century bullet holes.

The great Swiss Winterthur rack-and-pinion locos carried Kaiser Wilhelm across the mountains to the Roman ruins of Baalbek in 1898, freighted Turkish troops towards Syria in the First World War and starred in numerous Lebanese films until brought low by the outbreak of civil war in 1975.

That is the gentlest way of describing the fate of Lebanon's railway system. Across the country, the great green-painted steam locos of the French mandate lie rusting on broken sidings, their funnels, cabs and tenders the haunt of birds and rats, their tracks littered with the wreckage of flaking carriages purchased from the railways of the British Raj. At Rayak - the twin terminus with Baghdad for the original Orient Express - the Syrian army have camped amid the ancient steamers, a bunch of anti-aircraft guns dug in near the engine sheds.

Perhaps armies are psychologically drawn towards the railways that carried their ancestors to and from the wars of the early 20th century. In Tripoli, the old PLO front line, now a pile of tattered grey sandbags, runs in front of the locomotive sheds while Syrian troops have installed themselves behind the grass-covered turntables. Still dripping the last oil poured into their machinery more than two decades ago, the big 4-6-2s rot in sidings close to the 15th-century Tower of the Lions. One of these locos has received a direct hit from an artillery shell that smashed through the cab. All are peppered with bullet holes.

Widely believed to be of French manufacture, it took one of the world's leading enthusiasts of Levantine railways - a Manchester rabbi - to identify them as German. Originally pulling the big expresses of the pre-First World War Reichbahn, they were ceded to France as war reparations under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles and transferred by France to its newly mandated territory in Lebanon and Syria, acquired under the League of Nations at the same time Britain took control of Palestine and Transjordan. For more than half a century, they pulled expresses between Tripoli and the Syrian city of Homs, only to end their days when Lebanon broke apart in 1976. Thus did German locomotives of the Kaiser's Reich fall victim to the bullets and shells of Lebanese Christian militias, Syria and the PLO.

Mr Chehab wants to restore the Rayak railhead and reopen the line to Homs, re-linking Tripoli with the Syrian city at the same time. He is toying with the idea of restoring a rack-and-pinion track over the mountains but agrees that a new permanent way and new tunnels would be needed for the system. In the last years of the civil war, much of the track was torn up. The Christian Phalange ripped up the rails of the old British army ammunition line along the coast south of Beirut to use the rail-bed as a military supply route for lorry-mounted mortars. Further south, holiday chalets have been built over the track.

In 1982, the Israelis bombed the last rack-and-pinion railway bridge east of Dahr al-Baidur after failing to hit the main mountain highway. They tried - and failed - to destroy the French-built tunnel at Mdeirej in which the Syrian army had stored ammunition. But the railways of Lebanon had other, less militant enemies. When I took the last working train from Beirut to Byblos five years ago - a roaring Polish diesel pulling two tiny, bullet-splattered wooden carriages - the driver had to stop 18 times because cars had parked on the tracks. In the southern suburbs, entire eight-storey apartment blocks - illegally built but permanent, stand on top of the permanent way.

Mr Chehab is unimpressed. "We own the line and we're not paying compensation," he says.

But his resolution falters when you ask about costs. "The project for the new railway must be passed by parliament and the cabinet. It will be ... built, operated and transport provided by a single company. But it depends a great deal on the `peace process.'''

A dodgy prospect, I suggest, especially after Binyamin Netanyahu's victory in Israel. "I am not a politician," Mr Chehab replies. "But I would say that the entire project depends totally on the `peace process'."

And then, of course, it all becomes clear. The new main line to Tyre is supposed to continue further south, through the ruins of the roman forum at Tyre, down the bed of the old track to the border at Naqqoura to link up with the old British mandate line north of Nahariya. Beirut's railway line is being projected on the assumption it will go all the way to Israel, on to Tel Aviv, even to Cairo.

And there the dreams have to end. The Lebanese government still pays its 150 railway staff for work on a track that has not seen a train in two decades but Mr Chehab is being hived off to work on the bureaucracy of this year's Lebanese elections.

I ask Mr Chehab if a steam train will ever run again in Lebanon. Slowly, looking at his desk, he shakes his head.

"No, they'll not run again. I don't want to get rid of them. We will keep them for now. I had a thought of maybe a Lebanese railway museum. Unless there is someone else interested."

British, I suggest? And Mr Chehab's face lights up.

Robert Fisk