BEIRUT: Despite reports that the government had renewed its interest in rebuilding the rail line between Beirut and Tabarja, the closest anyone is likely to come to buying a ticket is still an evening drinking $9 vodka tonics at an exclusive bar that opened recently in the historical Mar Mikhael train station.
“This is one of the pieces of evidence that the government is not working to bring back the railways,” said Elias Maalouf, founder of the rail advocacy organization Train Train, who opposes the Central Station bar. “They are disrespecting the heritage of the station. They have installed a DJ booth in an old locomotive; it’s one of only five [of its kind] left in the world.”
Ziad Nasr, director general of the Railways and Public Transport Authority, defended the decision to rent the space to the bar’s owners, saying the authority regularly rents out the properties under its ward for social and cultural events.
The train was in the headlines this week after Beirut MP Mohammad Qabbani, who heads Parliament’s Public Works, Transport, Energy and Water Committee, announced that his committee and the Public Works and Transportation Ministry were looking into reviving the train, as well as buying between 200 and 250 buses – a perennial government promise since 2004.
“There is a plan, but it is not yet financed, and it will not be soon,” Qabbani clarified Friday.
“There are some illegal buildings [along the rail line] but it’s not much; it can be solved,” he told The Daily Star.
The plan is based on a study that was completed in 2012 by Egis Rail, a French transport infrastructure company. According to Maalouf, the study put the cost of the Beirut-Tabarja line at approximately $250 million, and concluded that it would pay for itself after seven years. Once the initial line is completed, each additional kilometer of track would cost $1 million, he added.
Stonewalled by the ministry, Maalouf said he had to contact Egis Rail in France directly in order to gain access to the report.
The European Investment Bank has announced it is ready to fund another study to determine the feasibility and cost of extending the line all the way to Tripoli, but the government has yet to launch a tender.
“Three hundred railway workers are being paid every month,” Maalouf said. “It costs us more to have them without a rail than to pay for a railway.”
In fact, Nasr told The Daily Star in an interview in May that the authority operates on an annual budget of LL14 billion, with LL12 billion going toward salaries for some 370 employees.
Of the 370, around 120 are bus drivers, although due to issues related to age and health only 74 are working as such. The rest are either in administrative roles or are tasked with guarding about 90 square kilometers of disused land, tracks, stations and rails under the RPTA’s ward.
The train in the Mar Mikhael station, which used to run along the coast, through the mountains and the Bekaa Valley all the way to Damascus, stopped operations with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1975. Since then, the tracks have been left to rust and in some areas destroyed to make way for illegal construction.
Fighting the illegal usage of the RPTA’s land is currently consuming most of the organization’s time and resources, Nasr said, adding that he has only one or two employees to monitor every 60 kilometers of track.
The authority supplements its budget by renting out the public property under its protection, but not without controversy, as in the case of Central Station.
Additionally, the RPTA recently sold the grafittied buses that used to occupy the Mar Mikhael train yard as scrap metal to an individual in Sidon for over LL1 billion.
Maalouf blamed the lack of political will for the failure to resurrect the rail system.
“They built the coastal line between Tripoli and Naqura during second World War,” he said. “They didn’t have the material; they didn’t have the equipment; they didn’t have anything, but they had the political support and it was funded by the commonwealth and it was running in less than one year. ... So it is not how long it will take, it’s how long the political will needs to happen.”
The lack of political consensus affects all aspects of the public transportation system. With no train network in place, Nasr said the authority currently runs just 35 buses, blaming understaffing and lack of funds. Maalouf put the number at closer to 20.
According to Tammam Nakkash of TEAM international, a management and engineering consultancy firm that drew up a Greater Beirut Transport Plan, successive transport ministers have failed to learn the lessons of the past and create a comprehensive public transportation system.
“Take any minister of public works and transport ... the first thing he will tell you – and boast about it and maybe tell you that others are not allowing him to do it – he will tell [you]: ‘I want to buy 200 buses.’ They see the problem as if it is only a matter of having buses,” he said. “It is a much more complex issue.”
Maalouf said he had little faith in either the ministry or Parliament, noting that the latter approved the $56 million Jal al-Dib bridge, despite reservations expressed by experts, while failing for 10 years to deliver on promises to invest in more buses, which he estimated would cost $36 million.
The controversial Fouad Boutros Highway in Ashrafieh, which was also justified on the grounds that it would ease congestion, is estimated to cost $75 million.
“Ninety thousand cars are imported to Lebanon every year,” Maalouf said. “People are buying more cars because the government is not giving them an option.”