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Iraq to rebuild rail system as reconstruction gathers pace
In a shabby, rusty train that had just left Baghdad for the southern city of Basra, Riyadh Saleh moved restlessly from carriage to carriage, searching for a comfortable, air-conditioned seat.
Saleh was one of about 200 passengers taking a 25-year-old diesel train to Basra last week; he was enticed by fares as low as 7,500 dinars ($6.50) for a seat on the 600 kilometre (375 mile) journey. But like many others, he felt the experience - especially the train’s top speed of 60-70 km/hour - left much to be desired.
“The train is not comfortable, it is rocking. I do not feel secure - I feel it will turn over at any moment. Besides, it is slow,” said the retired civil servant, who was travelling with 10 other family members to attend a relative’s wedding in Basra.
Iraq’s infrastructure is dilapidated after decades of war, sanctions and economic decline. In a country where piles of rubble and incomplete buildings are commonplace, almost every sector needs investment, including electricity and the sewage system.
But the country is laying plans to rebuild its historic railways and become a transit hub for goods that would be shipped from Asia to Iraq’s neighbours and beyond.
Iraq’s railways date back 100 years; the foundation of the first line was laid by the Germans under the Ottoman Empire in 1912. That line, connecting Baghdad with the town of Dujail, 60 km to the north, was completed in 1914.
The network has been neglected during the past several decades of political and economic turmoil. The country has only two working passenger trains at present, and officials in the state-run railway company admit that the volumes of passengers and freight which it carries do not generate enough income to cover employees’ salaries, let alone revamp the network.
That leaves Iraq with little public transport connecting regions of the fractious country. Most people rely on minibuses and taxis to make national journeys, which can be expensive and dangerous on poorly maintained roads.
“Our passengers have a right to complain because when they go abroad and see modern trains with new and developed technology, while our lines are the same old thing, they say ‘I want our trains to be like the rest of the world,’” said Hadi Ali, manager of the train station in central Baghdad.
Plans to revive the rail system are gaining pace along with the country’s oil boom and general reconstruction. If successful, this could not only have economic benefits by facilitating trade and domestic tourism, but by making travel easier, maybe even contribute to the country’s political unity.
Last year the railway company finished building a 32 km line between Mussayab, south of Baghdad, and the holy city of Kerbala to transfer hundreds of thousands of pilgrims during Shi’ite religious festivals.
It is also building a new railway parallel to the old Baghdad-Basra line at a cost of about $700 million; the line is due to be in service by the end of this year. Currently only around 250 passengers travel on Iraq’s railways on most days, but when the new Baghdad-Basra line is finished, the number could jump to between 2,000 and 3,000, officials say.
A line connecting Baghdad with the northern city of Mosul is still out of service, but transport officials hope to begin renovating it next year. Last year Iraq signed a deal to import ten trains from China, each carrying up to 450 passengers and running as fast as 140-160 km/hour, for $115 million.
Iraq currently has about 2,000 km of railway lines and hopes eventually to increase this to 10,000 km of dual-track railways, with electrified trains running at up to 200-250 km/hour that would connect all major Iraqi cities with neighbouring countries.
Mohammed Ali Hashem, manager of the projects department in the railway company, said the goal was to unload goods from Asia at southern Iraqi ports and transport them through the northern Iraqi city of Zakho into Europe via
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