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.
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.
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.

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

Syrian Rebels Poised for Anti-Russia Collaboration

Forty-one insurgent groups issue joint statement vowing retaliation for Russian air offensives More

Political Maneuver Revives Export-Import Bank's Chances

Parliamentary tactic gets bill out of committee, but it faces opposition in the Senate More

Beijing Warns US on S. China Sea Patrols

Warning follows news reports Thursday that US military is planning to sail warships close to artificial islands Beijing has been aggressively building More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdrawsi
Jim Malone
October 09, 2015 12:32 AM
The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

VOA Blogs