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 Dec 29 2009 

 

On track to bridge railway shortage

By Ferry Biedermann in Amman

 

More than century ago, the Hijaz railway linked Medina in the west of the Arabian peninsula to Damascus in the Levant and Istanbul on the edge of Europe.

But then the first world war erupted and the line was repeatedly attacked by Arab guerrillas working with Lawrence of Arabia - assaults from which it never recovered.

A creaking service was revived between Damascus and Amman for a few years up to 2006, using grubby carriages that were habitually stoned by village youths. But damage to the track stopped the service.

Throughout the Arab world, railway networks are rudimentary at best, and transnational links are even less common. However, governments are beginning to undertake a variety of projects intended to reverse the trend and improve railway links in the region.

Both Saudi Arabia and Syria have started constructing railway networks which, it is hoped, will form part of a regional network. At the centre of the pan-Arab scheme is Jordan, which by February intends to issue tenders for the first phase of a national railway network, which Amman plans to connect to a regional system in the future.

Part of the first phase is a link between the Saudi and the Syrian borders, via Amman, a route that is now plied by up to 4,000 trucks every day.

The planned network is mainly aimed at cargo, and Jordanian authorities see initially only "limited" potential for passengers.

However, a separate passenger line, a light railway between Amman and the industrial town and free-trade zone of Zarqa, is under also development.

The networks represent something of a revolution for Jordan, where almost all transport takes place along winding roads.

The only working stretch of the largely defunct rail network is an old part of the Hijaz railway that links phosphate mines in the south to the port of Aqaba.

Amman's sole railway station is the old Hijaz terminal. Dilapidated, it lies on the edge of town in the suburb of Marka, and sports a variety of rail carriages on its old tracks. These include a gaudy replica of the royal carriage of the last Ottoman sultan, Abdul Hamid II, under whose aegis the original line was built between 1900 and 1908.

Mahmoud al-Khazale, the Hijaz line's director-general, says it role today is merely "historic and educational".

But Mr Khazale, a member of Jordan's railway planning committee, says plans to build a national railway network and link it with the rest of the region is key for Jordan to keep pace with its neighbours.

"Saudi Arabia and Syria have already started. In Jordan, we are late," he says.

He is involved in the light rail project between Amman and Zarqa, which he hopes will be tendered in January and which will cost about $350m. The Amman-Zarqa light rail will use the Hijaz line and the station is due to be constructed next to the historic station in Marka.

The line will be a build, operate and transfer project, under which a private contractor or consortium will be responsible for constructing and managing the scheme until returning the assets to the authorities after a specified period.

Jordan's other planned railway development will take at least three years to complete, is estimated to cost $5bn and will also be a BOT project with an operating licence of 30 years.

The government will contribute the land, which it has already acquired for about $420m, and several other sweeteners, such as real estate rights at stations and other facilities. The government is also in the process of setting up a regulatory body.

John Sfakianakis, chief economist at Banque Saudi Fransi, says Jordan should be able to find the financing if not immediately, due to the global economic crisis.

He also warns that the plan for a regional link-up may be too ambitious in the short and medium term.

"In Saudi Arabia, the railway programme is unfolding gradually. The link to the Jordanian border is not yet a priority," he says.

Still, Mohannad Qudah, secretary general of the ministry of transport, says the railway project is of strategic and economic importance for Jordan.

He sees potential for the main north-south line linking the port of Aqaba on the Red Sea with Syria and Turkey. Some 80 per cent of all the goods that enter the kingdom now come through Aqaba, he says.

Jordan's ambitious plan is to create a link for cargo to be shipped from Aqaba either to Europe through Turkey or via a branch line to the Syrian port of Latakia, offering an alternative to the Suez Canal, he says.

"We believe it will be very attractive for people to ship their goods through Aqaba and then have them moved on by rail," says Mr Qudah.

The Financial Times

 

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