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Reconstruction Underway to Restore Iraqi Railroads

By Ross Adkins
Special to American Forces Press Service

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Oct. 9, 2004 – Railroads in Iraq were a multinational construction effort long before the current restoration effort began. Railroad construction in Iraq was started in the late 1800s by imperialist Germany.

After the British invasion in the early 1900s, they proceeded to engineer and begin construction of a railroad patterned after their narrow-gauge system.

When Iraq became independent, it enlisted construction help from Russia, Korea, Brazil and others. This diversity of construction created a mix of railroad standards on tracks running from Turkey to Basrah. In some cases, to get a shipment from one point in Iraq to another you would have to unload and reload a shipment because the railroad cars traveled on different track sizes.

Today, the Ministry of Transportation considers standardizing, reviving and modernizing the railroad a vital recovery link for Iraq. Rails now run from Mosul in the north to Basra in the south, a nearly 1,263mile lifeline.

Restoration by the Ministry of Transportation and multinational agencies is now underway, starting with the three main railroad stations at Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. Restoration efforts at another 28 of nearly 130 small stations in cities across Iraq will begin in the next two weeks.

An anti-aircraft gun on the roof of the Baghdad station made the depot a target during the 2003 ousting of the former regime. A complete modernization of the main terminal is underway and is expected to take about six months to complete.

Rehabbing of the stations will cost more than $55 million, said Safa Shubat, an engineer familiar with both U.S. and Iraqi railroads. The ministry and other agencies are upgrading the track for safety, as well as rolling stock, he said. Shubat grew up in Iraq and traveled to the United States for degrees in engineering.

Back in the system's glory days, the state-run railway employed around 9,000 people, including 500 at the Baghdad station. More than 500 of those have returned, and more are expected as the restoration continues, according to a recent Baghdad newspaper account.

"Many more local workers have been employed to perform the upgrades and basic repairs, including fixing windows and leaks in the roof," Shubat said.

The first post-Saddam Hussein train in Iraq ran between the southern seaport of Um Qasr and Basra. It was not long before the railroad workers got other trains moving throughout the country. But bridges are still out and roadbeds need repaired before rail traffic can make the complete north-to-south run.

Today officials estimate the railroad is running at about 10 percent of its former capacity. Schedules are still very flexible and are expected to remain so for up to a year or more, according to Iraq's Ministry of Transportation.

"Much of the work we are doing is to upgrade the electrical wiring, air conditioning system, painting and they are thinking of installing fiber optics as a part of the communication system needed to operate a modern day rail way system," Shubat said. "After all, a modern communications system is necessary to conduct safe operations."

(Ross Adkins is assigned to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Gulf Region Division.)

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