Home Levant Resurrecting the rail

Resurrecting the rail

Damascus getting the train back on track

by Executive Staff

It is a quirk of history that the Middle East was better interconnected 50 years ago than it is now. Train tracks laid down during the Ottoman era made that possible, with direct lines running from Istanbul to Medina in the South, and to Baghdad in the East.

Syria is now re-starting these train lines as part of a bid to become the transport hub of the region, connecting the Mediterranean with the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea.

On May 30, following decades of inaction, a cargo train carrying 800 tons of steel left the Syrian port of Tartous on a 36-hour trip to Baghdad, running 894 kilometers through Syria and a further 429 km in Iraq. This route has now been supplemented by passenger train services to Mosul, and cargo transited from the Syrian ports of Lattakia and Tartous to the Iraqi Gulf port of Umm Qasr, via Iraq’s rail network.

“Syria has been talking more with the Turks, the Iranians and the Iraqis to develop this network,” said Nabil Sukkar, managing director of the Syrian Consulting Bureau for Development and Investment. “Syria is trying to see itself as a hub for the region, so it is working now towards developing a road and railway network, plus there is gas passing through Syria and up to Europe,” he added.

With bilateral trade surging between Syria and Iraq — estimated at $800 million annually — and more than 1 million Iraqi refugees living in Syria, the link is expected to bolster ties between the two neighbors.

Syrian Minister of Economy and Trade, Amer Hosni Lutfi, recently said on a trip to Baghdad that he hopes that bilateral trade will triple in coming years to make Iraq as important a trading partner as China or Turkey. Each countries’ trade with Syria amounts to $2 billion annually.

The railway has a competitive cost advantage over road transportation for the same route. According to the Syrian Railway Organization (SRO), transport costs for one ton of freight from Tartous to Baghdad are $37, compared to $69-$83 by road.

The SRO has been gradually upgrading Syria’s aging fleet of Eastern European-made trains, while signing cross-border agreements with neighboring countries for passenger trains and cargo. Cargo links to Turkey, and on to Eastern Europe, have increased, with the SRO saying some five million tons of goods are to be transported annually on the route from Aleppo to the Turkish city of Gaziantep.

In 2002, the Tehran-Damascus line was restarted, and twice weekly service primarily transports Iranian and Syrian tourists (the trip takes about 50 hours). Trade between Iran and Syria was estimated at $340 million and joint economic activities at $1.5 billion in 2008, according to the Iranian Chamber of Commerce.

Regional railways

“There is more and more talk among Arab countries that trains are the best way to link countries together,” said the Syrian Consulting Bureau’s Sukkar. “This came up at the Kuwait Economic Summit in January, with one recommendation to develop the road and railroad network among Arab countries; the lack of this has been a main deterrent to an effective, unified Arab economic scheme.”

Iraq is planning billions of dollars in upgrades and to expand its domestic rail network from 1,995 km to as much as 4,988 km.

Iran is also planning to double the size of its 8,300 km rail network, making the country a transit route for cargo heading to Pakistan and Central Asian countries.

Jordan plans to launch a $6.4 billion rail network, with a 564 km line from the Red Sea port of Aqaba to the Syrian border, where it would then connect to the Syrian network and transit on to Turkey and Europe. An East-West railway is also planned, slated to run 482 kilometers from the northwestern Jordanian city of Irbid to the Iraqi border, with a potential additional line to the Saudi Arabian border.

Saudi Arabia meanwhile is investing billions of dollars to expand its network, including the $6 billion high-speed line between Mecca and Medina via Jeddah.

Support our fight for economic liberty &
the freedom of the entrepreneurial mind

Executive Staff


View all posts by

You may also like