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Tuesday, April 24, 2001

Lonesome locomotives left in Lebanon


By BRENT KININMONT
Staff writer

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- There aren't many obstacles in the way of exploring Lebanon's crumbling train stations. But at St. Michel, once the hub of the nation's now-defunct rail network, a man eyeing my camera says I need permission to look around.

Already obsolete when Lebanon's long war began, the country's trains sit abandoned, rusting and pocked with bulletholes, while the roadbeds collapse from erosion.

"OK, where?" "Over there," he says, pointing to an office across the tracks that bisect the station. The door is ajar but the cramped room is empty. So I go back. "Nobody's there?" asks the gentleman of uncertain authority. "Go ahead."

After a quarter century of neglect, there isn't much point in denying the curious access to the rolling stock sitting idle behind the high concrete walls in Beirut's St. Michel.

The two steam locomotives parked end to end amid the overgrown weeds and grass beside a parched water tower have probably sat here since the mid-1970s, when the first salvos of Lebanon's 15-year civil war brought the train service to a halt.

Farther along the tracks, which abruptly stop at the foot of a wall crowned with barbed wire, sit a string of browning gondola cars still loaded with shingle. The small, curled-in punctures in their steel sides prove that bullets don't necessarily make round holes.

Similarly, the damaged boiler on a steam locomotive parked nearby looks like the recipient of 100 knife wounds.

With much of Lebanon's railway equipment already outdated when the war began, the aging trains, carriages and stock cars beached at St. Michel and other disused sidings in Lebanon are appealing in their rough state of preserve.

In countries less troubled by recent history, such trains have been lovingly restored for the sake of tourist trips and museums.

Lebanon's trains ran in mainly two directions: the length of the nation's coast and east over the mountains toward Damascus.

With all lines intersecting at Beirut, the typical tourist path around this tiny nation conveniently traces the tracks -- or more usually the shadows -- of the abandoned rail network.

In the town of Aley, halfway up the mountain highway that leads to the staggering collection of classical ruins in Baalbek, the main station building is now the local chamber of commerce.

The tracks have been pulled up, and the only train in sight is a car decorated to look like a locomotive that stands in the parking lot along with a handful of other homemade attractions from the amusement park next door.

In places along the coastal highway south to the Biblical town of Sidon, sand has eroded the ground out from under the tracks, contorting the steel rails and their concrete sleepers into angles more suitable for roller-coaster rides.

Just before Sidon, at the point at which the line turns away from the sea, the rails disappear beneath the road's blacktop.

Among the array of locomotives and carriages sitting at the dilapidated railway station in Tripoli, on Lebanon's northern coast, a flatbed rail car has stood stationary for so long that a tree has had time to grow up through the broken wooden boards.

Two steam locomotives are parked in a dim engine shed, but I hesitate to take photos because of the Syrian soldiers in camera range in the battalion camp behind the hall. It is forbidden to take pictures of military positions.

Three Syrian civilians living in an old box car are more approachable. The men, who came to Lebanon's second-largest city on the coattails of the Syrian occupation, work as day laborers on building sites.

Asab Jomart, 28, gestures that it is OK to take a photo of the interior of their temporary home while he shaves cross-legged on the carpeted floor. An electrical cord slithering through the window gives the trio light and television.

To resurrect Lebanon's railway, the state must first wrench railway land away from such people who have found other uses for it.

The government has received periodic calls to rebuild lines to combat traffic congestion. But it is difficult, especially amid Lebanon's current economic slump, to find funds for salvaging a service that requires a complete overhaul of trains, tracks and buildings.

The railway may not be revived -- if at all -- until there is sustained peace in the Middle East, when a reliable transport network will be needed to carry goods across borders.

"The trains will run again," says the man at St. Michel, after warming to my intrusion. Surveying the graveyard of rolling stock, I don't know whether he is being optimistic or joking.



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