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COMMENT: Project prospects with Iraqi railways

Henry Clarke of Clyde and Co. offers his opinions on Iraq's railway.
COMMENT, Transportation, Rail

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The Iraqi railway network in 2008 covered 2272 kilometres. In the CIA Factbook this was the 66th largest national network. The network lengths of other national railway networks listed indicate the expansion potential of Iraqi railways: Bolivia has 3652 kilometres (46th); Egypt has 5083 kilometres (34th) and Cuba has 8598 kilometres (24th). There is clearly the potential for vast expansion of the railway network in Iraq to serve its reconstruction and economic advancement.

The potential of railways in Iraq has long been noted. Wilhelmine Germany and the Ottoman Empire commenced construction of a Berlin to Baghdad Railway in 1903. The southern section of the national network dates from the British military expedition in World War One; the British forces laid a narrow gauge line to carry its logistical requirements.

By the 1930s the railways became state-owned in the newly independent Kingdom of Iraq. The 1940s and 1950s saw modest expansion of the railways based on oil wealth and the requirements of the Iraq Petroleum Company. With Soviet assistance in the 1970s the southern narrow gauge was converted to standard gauge.

Arguably the late 1970s were the heyday of Iraqi railways to date. A number of long distance, international trains departed from Baghdad. Some Iraqis at the time saw no reason why the Orient Express should not extend its service to Baghdad. Even Saddam Hussein had a presidential train, which apparently he used only once to visit Basra. It now forms part of the passenger rolling stock of Iraqi railways, although presumably without the chandeliers and other luxurious fittings. By the 1980s the railway network could carry a million passengers and three million tonnes of freight annually. It included over thirty bridges over the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Ambitious plans to triple this capacity by 2000 failed to materialise, owing to the conflict and sanctions that battered the railway industry.

A mere hulk of a railway system was inherited by the new Iraqi republic in 2005. Nevertheless, this has not deterred the Iraqi government from rebuilding the railway system despite its many political, security and economic troubles. The railways remain strategically important for the Iraqi economy. An early initiative was to purchase 12 locomotives from a Turkish manufacturer to haul long-distance freight trains. The government bought 40,000 tonnes of railway track material for US$50 million in 2010, to upgrade its existing track. It ordered 10 diesel multiple units from Chinese manufacturer Dongfang in 2012. Iranian business is interested in Iraqi railways; several contracts with Iranian companies have been signed to refurbish railway engineering facilities and dilapidated rolling stock.

These are modest beginnings that look to accelerate with the expansion of the railway network, which is where leading engineering firms can come into their own. Iraq’s location makes it a crossroads for freight haulage to and from its main port of Umm Qasr to Jordan, Syria and Turkey. Syrian Railways extending a line from Deir ez-Zor Junction towards Husaibah on the Iraqi side of the border involving bridge construction to obtain more direct railway links between key towns on both sides of the border. A post-civil war Syria is likely to wish to complete this project.

The Jordanian government approved the construction of a line from the port of Aqaba to the Iraqi border at Traibil, a distance of 500 kilometres, whilst the Dorsch Group has commenced construction of a line from Ramadi to the Iraqi side of the border. Trade between the two countries is approximately $1 billion per year with aspirations that this new link will increase that trade by approximately 6 million tonnes per year of freight to be carried on this new line to Aqaba.

Domestic railway expansion is also envisaged. The Dorsch Group were instructed to assess plans for a Ramadi-Kabala mainline and for a line from Basra to a new port on the Al Fao peninsula. The government is backing a high-speed express line from Baghdad to Basra. With a distance of 650 kilometres, this line will allow passenger trains to travel at up to 250 kilometres per hour. The government was in discussions with Alstom from June 2011 for the design, construction and operation of the line. Construction was envisaged over a 4-5 year period with the line going through stations in Karbala, Najaf, Moussayeb and Samawah.

Railways in Iraq should also be seen in an urban public transport context. Alstom has also obtained work on a $1.5 billion project with the Baghdad governorate for the design of a monorail system in Baghdad. The initial phase will consist of 25 kilometres of track between the densest neighbourhoods along with the construction of 14 stations. An extension to this initial monorail system is envisaged in due course.

Iraq has the need to rejuvenate and expand its international, long distance and urban railways. This will encompass the full range of planning, engineering, manufacturing, servicing and management services within the railway industry.

About the Authors: Henry Clarke is an associate, Projects and Construction Group, Clyde and Co. While David Moore is a partner, infrastructure department.

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