News / Middle East

    Iraq Laying Plans to Rebuild Rail System

    Passengers board train heading to Basra at rail station, Baghdad, May 6, 2013.
    Passengers board train heading to Basra at rail station, Baghdad, May 6, 2013.
    Reuters
    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-kilometer (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 traveling 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 neighbors 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 kilometers 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 gain pace

    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-kilometer 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 10 trains from China, each carrying up to 450 passengers and running as fast as 140-160 km/hour, for $115 million.
     
    Passengers walk beside a train in a the rail station in Baghdad, May 6, 2013.Passengers walk beside a train in a the rail station in Baghdad, May 6, 2013.
    x
    Passengers walk beside a train in a the rail station in Baghdad, May 6, 2013.
    Passengers walk beside a train in a the rail station in Baghdad, May 6, 2013.
    Iraq currently has about 2,000 kilometers of railway lines and hopes eventually to increase this to 10,000 kilometers of dual-track railways, with electrified trains running at up to 200-250 kilometers an hour that would connect all major Iraqi cities with neighboring 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 Turkey.
     
    "So instead of a long trip to the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea, through Iraq it will take 24 hours," he said. "Iraq will become a transit point for goods transfer."
     
    Hashem envisions around 25 million tons of goods passing through Iraq annually once the rail projects are completed at an estimated cost of more than $60 billion over five years.
     
    Obstacles

    For now, such visions face formidable obstacles. One is financing; just $175 million has been allocated by the government for projects by Iraq's railway company this year.
     
    Hashem said there were two options for financing projects: annual allocations from the government, and effectively borrowing money from companies hired to perform infrastructure work — the firms would be paid under a staggered schedule. The staggered payment model would require passage of an infrastructure law by Iraq's parliament, however, and this has been delayed for several years by political wrangling. It is not clear when it might be passed.
     
    Khudhair Abbas, deputy head of another transport projects company run by the transport ministry, said Iraqi railways were not yet attractive to foreign investors because they would not be profitable until the country's southern port of Grand Faw was built, which would take years.
     
    In the long term, Iraq may be able to find the money for its railways; the International Monetary Fund expects its oil exports to expand to $152 billion in 2018 from $94 billion last year, swelling government coffers.
     
    But there are other problems. Talib Kadhim, head of the operations and transport department in the railway company, said many traders preferred to move their goods via private motor transport firms, even though that was more expensive, because the firms offered door-to-door services and train stations were far from the city centers.
     
    Security is still a concern. Recent talks with a foreign company to transfer crude oil by rail to Akashat, near the Jordanian border, for shipment abroad were scuppered by the increasingly volatile situation in the western province of Anbar, bordering Syria.
     
    "When stability is achieved, transportation in general will increase in the country," said Kadhim.
     
    In the Baghdad station hall, ticket booths remain shut with the exception of the window for the Baghdad-Basra line, where a small whiteboard shows train times and ticket prices written in a red marker.
     
    "I have a lot of memories of the trains in the 1960s when I was a kid," said Emad Maki, 54, an unemployed man who was travelling to Basra with his wife and four children to offer condolences for the death of a relative.
     
    "I wish our trains were like the ones in Europe. It is difficult to achieve but I am sure things will be better if there is determination. If we achieve 50 percent of what others have, that will be good."

    You May Like

    Post-White House, Obamas to Rent Washington Mansion

    Nine-bedroom home is 3 kilometers from Oval Office, near capital's Embassy Row; rent estimated at around $22,000 a month

    Red Planet? Not so much!

    New research suggest that Mars is in a warm period between cyclical ice ages, and that during Ice Age Maximum over 500,000 years ago, the red planet was decidedly ice, and much whiter to the naked eye.

    Taj Mahal Battles New Threat from Insects

    Swarms of insects are proliferating in the heavily contaminated waters of the Yamuna River, which flows behind the 17th century monument

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnami
    X
    Elizabeth Lee
    May 22, 2016 6:04 AM
    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnam

    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video First-generation, Afghan-American Student Sets Sights on Basketball Glory

    Their parents are immigrants to the United States. They are kids who live between two worlds -- their parents' homeland and the U.S. For many of them, they feel most "American" at school. It can be tricky balancing both worlds. In this report, produced by Beth Mendelson, Arash Arabasadi tells us about one Afghan-American student who seems to be coping -- one shot at a time.
    Video

    Video Newest US Citizens, Writing the Next Great Chapter

    While universities across the United States honor their newest graduates this Friday, many immigrants in downtown Manhattan are celebrating, too. One hundred of them, representing 31 countries across four continents, graduated as U.S. citizens, joining the ranks of 680,000 others every year in New York and cities around the country.
    Video

    Video Vietnam Sees Strong Economic Growth Despite Incomplete Reforms

    Vietnam has transformed its communist economy to become one of the world's fastest-growing nations. While the reforms are incomplete, multinational corporations see a profitable future in Vietnam and have made major investments -- as VOA's Jim Randle reports.
    Video

    Video Qatar Denies World Cup Corruption

    The head of Qatar’s organizing committee for the 2022 World Cup insists his country's bid to host the soccer tournament was completely clean, despite the corruption scandals that have rocked the sport’s governing body, FIFA. Hassan Al-Thawadi also said new laws would offer protection to migrants working on World Cup construction projects. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Infrastructure Funding Puts Cambodia on Front Line of International Politics

    When leaders of the world’s seven most developed economies meet in Japan next week, demands for infrastructure investment world wide will be high on the agenda. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push for “quality infrastructure investment” throughout Asia has been widely viewed as a counter to the rise of Chinese investment flooding into region.
    Video

    Video Democrats Fear Party Unity a Casualty in Clinton-Sanders Battle

    Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton claimed a narrow victory in Tuesday's Kentucky primary even as rival Bernie Sanders won in Oregon. Tensions between the two campaigns are rising, prompting fears that the party will have a difficult time unifying to face the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video Portrait of a Transgender Marriage: Husband and Wife Navigate New Roles

    As controversy continues in North Carolina over the use of public bathrooms by transgender individuals, personal struggles with gender identity that were once secret are now coming to light. VOA’s Tina Trinh explored the ramifications for one couple as part of trans.formation, a series of stories on transgender issues.
    Video

    Video Amerikan Hero Flips Stereotype of Middle Eastern Character

    An Iranian American comedian is hoping to connect with American audiences through a film that inverts some of Hollywood's stereotypes about Middle Eastern characters. Sama Dizayee reports.
    Video

    Video Budding Young Inventors Tackle City's Problems with 3-D Printing

    Every city has problems, and local officials and politicians are often frustrated by their inability to solve them. But surprising solutions can come from unexpected places. Students in Baltimore. Maryland, took up the challenge to solve problems they identified in their city, and came up with projects and products to make a difference. VOA's June Soh has more on a digital fabrication competition primarily focused on 3-D design and printing. Carol Pearson narrates.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora