The History of the Lebanese Railway Network: How the Strategically Located City of Beirut Became Isolated and Destitute

Whenever the Lebanese railway comes up on the news our minds directly think about the government’s railway association which is still active despite the absence of functional trains, showing this sector’s failure and that it would not be of any use in a country whose people are still demanding basic services. A railway that had a very rich history and importance has become the subject of many jokes. Due to the government’s mismanagement of the railway system and the Lebanese Civil War, our railway system met its end in 1994 with the “Peace Train” that was transporting construction materials from Chekka to Beirut while and was previously connected to a larger network going through the middle east, Africa, and Europe back in 1890. What remains now are broken tracks found on the seaside road and the famous train stations of Mar Mikhael, Rayak, and Tripoli which are currently in miserable condition. In this article we will go on a trip back in time to see how the railway network started and how it ended while discussing the necessity of bringing it back.  

The story goes way back to the Ottoman era during the 19th century where at the time transporting goods from Mount-Lebanon to Beirut took almost 3-4 days by mule. At the time, like many parts of the world, transportation was still primitive and difficult. This issue caught the attention of a former French military marine officer Count Edward de Bertoy after he came to live in Beirut and worked on getting a permit from the Ottomans to start building the railway. He was able to get the privilege in 1857 after which he held negotiations with the empire’s transport association. Youssef Motran, a businessman from Baalbek, took the permit to build the Beirut port and the rights over transportation in Lebanon however it was later discovered that he sold it to a French company which took over these rights. In the year 1888 Beirut became the trade capital of the Ottoman empire due to its port and geostrategic location however the plans for a railway were still under discussion. Western powers at the time, especially France and the United Kingdom, were looking forward to building a railway through the Ottoman empire and the middle east in particular, as it held important trade routes connected to new markets which would efficiently facilitate their expansion. The interests of western powers and local traders in the major Lebanese cities of Beirut and Tripoli converged over building a railway which would facilitate the trade for local traders and would allow western powers to have easier control over natural resources in the region. In 1890, French engineer Edward Coz proposed a railway from Tripoli to the Syrian coast which caught the attention of Beirut’s traders prompting them to start negotiations with the Ottomans in order to propose a railway project that connects Beirut to Damascus. This resulted in a race between the traders of both cities to see which side will get the privilege of the first railway network in the country. The negotiations faced many obstacles due to tensions between different political actors, especially between the United Kingdom and the Ottoman Sultanate. Fast forward to 1890, the Beirut traders looked to Hassan Bayham, an important figure from Beirut, to resolve the issue. June 17, 1891 marked the initiation of the Ottoman railway company of Beirut- Damascus which was divided between Hassan Bayham and Youssef Motran who both sold their sections later to other sides. Youssed Motran eventually sold his part to The Ottaman railway company of (Beirut-Damascus-Houran) in 1893 and then Hassan Bayham sold his part to Edward De Bertoy who then merged both sides into the company named Ottoman economic railway network (Beirut- Damascus-Houran-Birecik-Fourat) which then opened in 1895 following huge celebrations that coincided with Sultan Abdel el Hamid the Second’s birthday. At the time two lines connected Lebanon to the world the first was the Damascus- Hama line and the Naqoura-Beirut-Tripoli line. This kickstarted the Lebanese railway’s golden, connecting Lebanon to the world since it was accessible through Europe, Africa, Asia. The Rayak Train station was considered the best train station in the middle east as it also had a large railway and train factory with over 3,000 employees. This was the peak of progress in Lebanese transportation as Lebanon was truly connected to the world with it’s Port and railway network which are sadly both lost today due to the economic complications, Political conflicts, and finally the catastrophic incident in Beirut’s port on August 4, 2020. 

Private company ownership helped the Lebanese railway to flourish just as the railway was developing from 1895- 1912 in which each year a new line was formed, further connecting Lebanon to the world. Then came significant developments where the world was facing major changes in it’s political systems. When WW1 broke out, trains were at their peak performance leading to deforestation of huge areas all over Lebanon due to high usage of wood instead of coal in steam locomotives. The Lebanese railway also witnessed interesting stories such as when T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) blew up the Ras Baalbeck railway bridge and hid close to the Rayak train station for a while where he was trying to convince the employees and locals to join the Arab revolt. Lawrence failed in his endeavor which was off the record but still remembered by Old Rayak locals. During WW1 and WW2 around 30 trains arrived daily to the Beirut and Tripoli stations. The railway sector was in a good and functional state until June 6, 1956 when the railway company was nationalized and went under the full control of the Lebanese government, placing it under the public transportation authority under the circular of 6479. The region then became more unstable due to the Arab-Israeli conflict which changed the political atmosphere for surrounding countries. The first loss of connection happened during the 6 day war in 1967 where the Naqoura train tunnel was bombed by the Israelis and three Lebanese trains were trapped in Haifa and are now a part of a museum until this day. Lebanon thus lost its railway connection to Palestine and Egypt. During these years the Lebanese railway barely received funding and didn’t get the proper maintenance that it needed and in 1964 the funding and employment was officially stopped as the government saw it as a huge expense with no profits and didn’t properly manage it until 1975 when they officially stopped due to the Lebanese civil war. 

The Lebanese railway was a victim of political conflicts that failed to see its importance in creating peace and job opportunities for many people in the region. It was gradually shunned from 1975 until 1991 where it a reached a stage of complete disappearance. During the civil war the railway was functioning at a minimal scale to transport fuel and construction materials after the civil war there where plans to restart it as there where some projects to do so. When Beirut was being rebuilt in 1994 trains where carrying cement from Chekka to Beirut daily with a much lower expense. However, truck drivers and some politicians lobbied to have it closed leading it to come to an end in 1994 with the Peace Train after which the railways were removed and many parts of it were gone after many buildings were erected on top of railway tracks and train stations were turned into parking spaces, police stations, and courts which made it harder to revive. 

The train sector was ended due to political conflicts over who would manage the railway tracks and how the income would be divided. One day, however, the issue of the railways resurfaced after Elias Maalouf was shooting a documentary about the Syrian army leaving Lebanon in 2005 in his town of Rayak. After entering the train station he came across documents that were getting burned. As he was collecting them he screamed, leading him to almost get shot by Syrian soldiers as they were leaving. This inspired him to start Train Train NGO which is an NGO that advocates for the return of trains. Today, with its current president Carlos Naffah, it is trying to spread awareness on the matter and is cooperating with the government on many levels to try to revive the railway system. It might be far-fetched; however, such awareness is crucial to revive the railway system that was essential for Lebanon’s position in the region and the world. 

حلّ لأزمة الدواء مع اقتراب رفع الدعم.. واليكم عجائب لبنان في التسعير!
October 17th: A Series of Successes and Failures that Changed the Face of the Country!