November 04, 2015

On the (T)rail

Stretch of railroad tunnel
I walked an interesting (t)rail this weekend. It is part of yet another – and very fascinating – remainder/reminder of our once more illustrious past that you might want to visit. This one will take a little longer, with the stress on ‘longer’.
 Once, a long time ago, we were a civilized nation with a public transport system; we had a train.
You may argue that the current service and the mini-busses is also a form of public transport, and it is, but the train allowed people to travel fast, cheap and safely, from
one end to the country to the other.
And I stress on the safely here. Have you ever sat in one of those mini-busses and travelled all the way to Hermel? You will be a believer if you arrive with a blood pressure of 120 over 80.  


‘The first railway in Lebanon was also the first in the Arab world. It was opened on August 3, 1895, when a steam locomotive took the first passengers from Beirut to Damascus. (…) The 147km trip from Beirut to Damascus used to take nine hours, passing through Baabda, Aley, Bhamdoun, Sofar and Dahr al-Baidar before descending into the Bekaa towards the Syrian border.’ (source)
The train started in Beirut (Station), passed (among others) through Jamhour (Distance from Beirut) 11.9 km , Araya 16.1 km, Aley 20.4 km, Bhamdoun 26.4, Ain Sofar 30.5 km, and ended some 144 kilometers later in Damascus Baramke, Syria (the place where you used to get off when you’d go by cab to Damascus).

The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel
That train system has disappeared. The line to Jerusalem was cut in 1948, the line with Damascus was destroyed in the first two years of the civil war (1975-1977).  And that was the end of the Lebanese railways. Sort of. Wikipedia mentions that parts of it operated as late as 1993 but I cannot vouch for that information.
Commuter service between Dowra and Jbeil ceased in 1993 and the last regular rail operations in Lebanon—trains carrying cement from Chekka to Beirut—ended in 1997.The Polish diesel locomotive for this line continued to be run once a month at the Furn el Shebbak stockyards as late as 2002, but service was not resumed. (source)
For what it’s worth, the Syrian railways are not doing well these days either.
The railway station in Sawfar. The one in Bhamdoun is currently on the verge of extinction
And to repeat the words of The Lord of the Rings again (sorry, family is having a marathon viewing); ‘Much that once was, is lost, for none now live who remember it. (. . . ) And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. ’  

 But as I said, remnants of this illustrious past (how I wish I could get on a train and ride to Baalbeck, or Tyres for the day!) are visible all around us.
There are the old train stations, built in their typical uniform architecture of French railroad house of the late 1800’s, of which quite a few are still standing.
Ain Sofar
And then there’s the rails.
To get back to this weekend’s hike; I walked along a short stretch of those rails. It is a part that runs between Sawfar and the Beqaa Valley. It runs right alongside the Damascus highway (highway?), but cannot be seen for most of the way as it lies down in the valley. Once you get into the valley though, it is very visible.
 The rail is no longer there, ripped out and sold off decades ago, but there’s a railroad house (inhabited by goats these days), remnants of a water tower, there are long stretches of tunnel (presumably to protect against snow drifts, can’t think of another reason) and then there’s the near level path of where the rails once ran. And you can basically, with some diversion, walk all the way into the Beqaa Valley, from the end of Sawfar all the way to Mrajat (town before Chtoura).
Pretty sturdy workmanship. After some 90 years, all it requires is the wood, and it will be a bench again.
It’s a nice trail; I wonder if anyone has ever walked the entire railroad, just like they have a trail set out to walk the Lebanon Mountain ridge, all the way from the north to the south (or the other way around, depending on where you start).
 When you walk in the narrow valley, you do not hear the cars above. There are no roads down below, so it is quiet, there are birds (hard to get here for hunters who are often car-bound, it seems), and lots of roaming sheep.
There are enthusiasts that are trying to revive the old railroad system. Zeina Haddad, a film maker, made a documentary, about the Lebanese railway (short trailer here), there’s an entire facebook page dedicated to the old trains, and Elias Maalouf, co-founder of leading Lebanese advocacy organization Train/Train Lebanon, is lobbying relentlessly for the re-introduction of the train in Lebanon.

I can only hope that one day I can catch a train early in the morning to Tyre, walk around town, make some pictures, hang out in the old harbor, eat fish, and catch the late train back to Beirut. In the meantime, I think I will walk the entire railroad, and keep you posted.
All that's missing is the rails


Kristi Lonheim said...

I love hiking on old rail lines and, as always, your pictures make me wish I was.

Anonymous said...

Watch Safar Bilak (old fairuz movie ) on youtube if you want to see the former lebanese railways in action. :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this wonderful post