Spain to help rebuild Lebanon’s forgotten railway network

Lebanon’s transport minister has said that Spain will finance a plan to revive the railway network that has been out of service since the start of the 1975-1990 civil war.

Spain to help rebuild Lebanon's forgotten railway network
A picture shows an old train locomotive inside the abandoned Riyaq train station in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Rail transport in Lebanon began in the 1890s under the Ottoman Empire but came to a halt in the 1970s during the country's civil war. (Photo by JOSEPH EID / AFP)

A deal for a “comprehensive master plan for the 407 kilometre-long (252 miles) railway” is expected next month, Public Works and Transport Minister Ali Hamie told AFP during an interview on Wednesday.

“We should sign a deal with the Spanish government within three weeks,” Hamie said, adding that the plan should be completed six months after an agreement is clinched.

Lebanon had a railway network since the end of the 19th century which connected Beirut to the Syrian capital Damascus.

It was built during Ottoman rule and inaugurated in 1895, operating until the devastating civil war begun 47 years ago.

Several proposals to revamp the network — and public transport in general — were made after the end of the war in 1975 but were shelved.

Remnants of the British-mandate-era Beirut-Acre (Akko) rail line, in the southernmost stretch of Lebanese coastline in the area of Naqura, by the border with Israel. At its peak Lebanon had about 408 kilometres of railway. Photo: Mahmoud ZAYYAT/AFP

The network, like most of Lebanon’s post-war infrastructure, fell into disrepair, and illegal construction sprouted along the railway.

With public transport effectively non-existent, there are more than two million cars for six million people in Lebanon.

In 2018, the World Bank approved a $295 million package to jumpstart the country’s first modern public transport system.

But that too was put on hold as Lebanon has been struggling since 2019 with a major financial crisis dubbed by the World Bank as one of the planet’s worst in modern times.

Spain’s government will pay a Spanish firm to draft a feasibility study, a survey of current infrastructure and proposals to settle infringements on the rail network, Hamie said.

The master plan, he said, could serve as a way to attract potential investors for the rehabilitation of the railway.

Lebanon’s cash-strapped public works ministry is trying to attract funds in foreign currency by launching tenders for top facilities.

They include the Beirut International Airport and the Beirut port, where an explosion caused by a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate fertiliser in August 2020 killed more than 200 people and destroyed swathes of the capital.

Next week, Hamie is due to sign a 10-year contract with French shipping giant CMA CGM to run the container terminal at Beirut port.

The Lebanese government in partnership with the World Bank is also working on drafting a roadmap for the reconstruction of the port which should be ready by August, Hamie said.

“The master plan for the port lays out a framework for optimal investment” before the start of reconstruction which is estimated to cost $500-600 million, the minister told AFP.

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Spain’s capital ramps up security to host Nato summit

Madrid was turned into a high-security zone on Tuesday, with thousands of police guarding venues where over 40 world leaders will gather for a Nato summit focused on Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Spain's capital ramps up security to host Nato summit

Dubbed “Eirene”, after the ancient Greek Goddess of peace, the operation involves the biggest deployment of security forces in “Spain’s recent history”, according to the government.

A total of 10,000 agents backed by sniffer dogs and helicopters have been deployed to provide security for the 5,000 delegates attending the three-day summit, which gets underway on Tuesday evening.

Spanish Defence Minister Margarita Robles said fighter jets and anti-aircraft artillery devices had also been placed on high alert to protect Spanish airspace.

US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson are among the leaders expected at the gathering of Nato members and a dozen specially invited nations.

READ ALSO: Sánchez and Spanish King to meet with Biden before Madrid Nato summit

“Madrid and Spain will be the centre of the world,” Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares told private television Antena 3.

On Tuesday, police on foot and on horseback patrolled the streets of Madrid, which were monitored by police helicopters and drones.

The tightest security was around the IFEMA conference centre in the northeast of the capital, where the summit will take place.

Roads leading to the conference centre were cut off and the nearest metro stations was closed.

Access to the hotels where delegations are staying was also restricted.

To avoid gridlock in the city of over three million, local authorities strongly recommended that people work from home if possible.

Madrid’s Prado museum, which will host a gala dinner on Wednesday evening, will be closed to the public for two days.

The capital’s imposing central square, the Plaza Mayor, will be closed from Tuesday afternoon and used as parking space for the delegate’s vehicles.