Iraq: Project Prospects With Iraqi Railways: The Baghdad To Basra Railway Revisited?

Last Updated: 22 April 2013
Article by David Moore and Henry Clarke

The potential for railways in the Middle East is Victorian in scale. This includes Iraq as it rebuilds using its oil revenues after decades of war and sanctions.Clyde and Co's projects and construction group covers such infrastructure projects with particular railway expertise resting with partner David Moore. Fellow group member and group associate Henry Clarke surveys the current state of Iraqi railways.

The Iraqi railway network in 2008 covered 2,272 kilometres. In the CIA Factbook this was the 66th largest national network. The network length of other national railway networks listed indicate the expansion potential of Iraqi railways: Bolivia has 3,652 kilometres (46th); Egypt has 5,083 kilometres (34th) and Cuba has 8,598 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, although it was only completed in 1940 under very different global circumstances.  The southern section of the national network dates from the British military expedition in World War One; the British 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 3 million tones of freight annually. It included over thirty bridges over the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Ambitious plans to triple this capacity by 2000 failed to materials due to 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 tons of railway track for USD 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 rolling stock.

These are modest beginnings that look to accelerate with the expansion of the railway network, which is where world leading engineering and construction firms can come into their own. Iraq's location makes it a cross roads for freight haulage to and from its main port of Umm Qasr to Jordan, Syria and Turkey. Syrian Railways was extending a line from Deir ez-Zor Junction towards Husaibah on the Iraqi side of the border following the Euphrates river valley and involving bridge construction to obtain more direct railway links between key towns on both sides of the border. A post-civil war Syrian government 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 USD 1 billion per year with aspirations that this new link will increase that trade with approximately 6 million tons per year of freight to be carried on this new line to Aqaba. 

Domestic railway expansion is also envisaged. The Dorsch Group was 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 USD 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. 

With regard to financing and structuring such work, there is the obvious sovereign loan or taxation funding for 'traditional' procurement. Iraq has oil wealth to fund this form of structure, but from an assessment of the basic issues surrounding projects - time, quality and cost - there may be benefit from using other methods that might appear more expensive, but lock in professional expertise and transparency from the private sector into the construction, running and maintenance of railways resulting in a better quality outcome more quickly. At present there is no active example of design, build and operate, or partnering or variations of private finance initiatives in the Iraqi railway industry. Nevertheless the presence of European engineering contractors and examination of other capital intensive investment such as power generation does provide worthwhile material for analysis, which will be the subject of a sequel article.

For bold railway specialists, Iraq offers historically significant projects to participate in: the age of the Baghdad to Berlin Railway is back, but with the legacy of only gradual construction of the existing network the jury is out regarding the pace of progress in this rejuvenation and expansion.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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