The absence of public transport in Lebanon has a substantial economic impact on the country, with congestion clogging the country’s main transport arteries. Without a sustainable transport system in place, this will only get worse; the average delay per vehicle will nearly double and the average speed will be halved according to a 2015 working paper from the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut. The effect is multidimensional; there is no solution to traffic congestion woes without a public transport system in place. The backbone of any public transport system is a railway network for the transport of passengers and freight. It is, therefore, crucial to have railways—and timely too, given Syria and Iraq’s reconstruction needs.
Several studies have attempted to quantify the economic impact of congestion caused by the lack of public transport, with estimates ranging between 5 and 10 percent of GDP. In a March 2018 press release announcing the World Bank’s approval of a $295 million package to overhaul Lebanon’s transport sector—the Greater Beirut Public Transport Project—Ziad Nakat, senior transport specialist at the World Bank was quoted as saying that, “In economic terms, the annual cost of traffic congestion is above $2 billion, representing a large impediment to growth and regional connectivity.”
Too much petrol
The absence of public transport is also fueling the high petrol bill that is negatively affecting the balance of payments, as petrol constitutes a large part of Lebanese imports. In 2017, Lebanon’s exports amounted to $3.91 billion, and its imports to $20.8 billion—of which, $3.77 billion was for refined petroleum, one of its top imports. If the country develops public rail transport, it could significantly reduce fuel usage and emissions, if the latest technology—trains that run on non-emission hydrogen fuel cells—is adopted. Transport in Lebanon accounts for around 23 percent of the country’s emissions of greenhouse gases, mainly from road transport, according to a 2016 Ministry of Environment report.
Many past opportunities to develop infrastructure projects in the country have been dismally missed. They included projects at the energy, waste management, water, and transport levels. In 2016, the French company EGIS rail conducted a feasibility study on three railway lines: 1) a Beirut-Tripoli cargo line to connect the ports of Beirut, Jounieh, and Tripoli; 2) a Beirut-Tripoli passenger line with eight trains per hour and a capacity of 2,000 passengers each; and 3) an intercity train between Beirut and Tabarja with eight trains per hour and a capacity of 1,200 passengers each. Since that date, the file has been sitting with the Council of Development and Reconstruction (CDR) with no action taken and no indication of why the file lies untouched. Likewise, there has been no action on the Tripoli–Syrian border railway link, which has been with the CDR since 2014. (There have been indications that the Chinese were interested in investing as recently as May this year, but no concrete steps have been taken.)
Stimulate the economy
Rehabilitating the railway network will have a positive impact on employment—currently local unemployment is estimated at around 25 percent. A new railway network would create thousands of jobs at no cost to the state as they will be supported by the private sector. The Lebanese government could also stimulate the economy by relinking the country to the region at a time when its neighbors are rebuilding their rail network—a regionally linked network to which Lebanon used to be connected. In March this year, Syria reopened its Tartous-Qalamoun line, while Iraq reopened its Baghdad-Fallujah line in late 2018, after years of war had brought both rail networks to a halt.
On a broader regional level, Chinese and French companies are leading many rail projects in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. Lebanon should step in and take advantage of this unique economic opportunity to reestablish a railway network that was historically connected to the GCC and to Europe.
One hundred twenty-four years ago, railways connected the French port of Marseille to the port of Beirut as part of what is known as the Levant gate. French investment brought rail service to life backed by Swiss, German, and French technologies. It drew a chapter of cooperation between the West and the East, centered on Lebanon. Perhaps Lebanon should rewrite the same journey of cross-cultural and economic exchange by joining the Chinese “One Belt, One Road” initiative, a global development strategy launched by President Xi Jinping in October 2013, or by reconnecting the Levant region to Europe via a new Levant railway open to the southern part of Europe and North Africa via the Beirut and Tripoli ports. Only time will tell, but a political decision should be made quickly before Lebanon misses the train.