return of the orient express: mosul plans revival of train services

The Mosul train station is empty after years of neglect. But local authorities say they want to revive railways here. It’s a sign of better conditions in the strife-torn city. But two similar projects have already failed. Can this one work?

 

Once this area, in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, was bustling with passengers, buses, cars and the whistles of departing trains. Today the city’s train station is deserted and almost silent. Rusted wagons stand around, a pack of stray dogs roams the ruined buildings and somewhere in the distance one can faintly hear the sound of railway employees at work.

 

The railway station in Mosul, the capital of the state of Ninawa, was originally built after WWI by the British army and opened in 1938. Since then it has been a historical landmark in the troubled northern city – it bears the marks of Iraq’s past rulers and conflicts as well as the various festivals that it was used to host.

 

The station in Mosul was particularly well known because it was a stop on a sister route of the famous Orient Express, as well as part of the line which went from Berlin to Baghdad and which helped establish German dominance in the near Middle East in the early 20th century; the trains brought passengers of many different nationalities through Mosul.

 

But the railway was also obviously useful for locals. “For the people of Mosul, the train was a safe means of transport,” Ibrahim al-Allaf, a professor of contemporary history and the director of the Regional Studies Centre in Mosul, told NIQASH. “Ticket prices were low, the trains ran on time and the quality of service was excellent. I used it myself whenever I had to go to the universities in the capital. And hundreds of students used the trains too. It was a very reliable way of getting around.”

 

In fact, all kinds of people in Mosul – from students to soldiers – remember the train journeys, the train whistles and the ceaseless clattering of their wheels, with great fondness.

 

Which is why locals say they are pleased to hear that a decision has been made to reopen Mosul’s railway. The first stage of the renovation of the railways should see trains travelling between Mosul and the Rabia border crossing into Syria, around 100km south of Mosul, and also between Mosul and Qayyarah, around 60km south-west of Mosul.

 

“The government of Ninawa has said it will cover the maintenance costs for the trains and also other costs and supplies and an executive committee has been set up to do that. But we’re still waiting approval from the Ministry of Transport before we can begin,” Ali Mahmoud, the state government’s communications manager told NIQASH. 

 

The real challenge lies not in renovating the railway station but the railway lines and also finding suitable staff. Former train drivers around Mosul are worried that there will be nobody to teach the new staff that will most certainly be required. “If we retire, there won’t be anyone to carry on,” one Mosul engine driver, currently unemployed, told NIQASH. “No new drivers have been recruited for a decade because there hasn’t been any money to do so.”

 

And then there are the railway lines. “Over the past seven years nobody has been able to finish work on the Mosul-Rabia lines,” Akram Ahmed, the head of railways in Iraq's northern region, complained. “The trains’ speeds will barely reach 60kmh, which is well below the world average.” Most trains around the world, that are not high speed trains, travel at between 130kmh and 200kmh.

 

Ahmed has good reason for concern. This is not the first time that certain Iraqi rail schedules have been revived. Services to Aleppo in Syria and Gaziantep in Turkey were both resumed over the past couple of years but have both since been discontinued.

 

Additionally Ahmed pointed out that in the recent past, the train to Baghdad has virtually been empty. “Sometimes there were one or two passengers on board but that’s not financially feasible,” he argues.

“That’s why the service was suspended in the first place.” Part of the reason for a reluctance to travel by train had to do with security concerns: passengers worried about being targeted by extremists and the deterioration in infrastructure since the 1970s and 80s, when rail was a major mode of goods and passenger transport, meant there was also a danger of train accidents and miscommunication to worry about.

 

However conditions have changed significantly and it’s possible that the time for a rail revival is ripe. The Ninawa state authorities have already allocated IQD1.5 billion (around US$100,000) to restore the Mosul train station which was damaged by a truck bomb in 2009.

 

Back at the rail station though, nothing much has changed for Jasim Ahmed. Not yet anyway. The 60-year-old spends most of his day in a small room next to the maintenance workshop where the old trains are queued. He still doesn’t have any work to do and to kill time, Ahmed drinks tea and smokes. Puffing on his cigarette and watching the smoke evaporate, the city’s longest serving train driver, who’s been working for the railways for 43 years, recounts the station’s glory days.

 

He spent much of his time driving German-made Henschel trains and he’s heard the news about the renovations: he says he’s thrilled to hear that the station will be renovated and that services will recommence.

 

And he’s not alone. Many other locals are also waiting to hear the train whistles again. For the living, it is a sign of their city’s recovery from violence and conflict. And for the dead, well, the authorities say they also plan to restore the statue of renowned classical musician, Othman al-Mosuli, who passed away in 1923, that stands opposite the station.