Newly-revived Iraqi railway a sign of progress and hope

FALLUJAH: The newly-revived railway between Baghdad and Fallujah snakes across the western Iraqi desert, through a landscape of burned-out tanks, abandoned cars and collapsed buildings.
For the last month, Captain Imed Hassun has taken pride in once again driving the route between the capital and the former IS stronghold.
“I didn’t think that a train would come back here again,” says Hassun, who has been a driver for 30 years but had until recently been redeployed elsewhere. While government forces expelled IS from Fallujah in 2016, the line still bears the scars of the group’s two-year occupation of the city and its environs, including mines it planted along the tracks.
Before the rise of IS, Hassun and his co-driver steered the Baghdad-Fallujah route during some of the most turbulent times in Iraq’s history.
They had even kept trains running during much of the combat between American forces and militia in the mid 2000s, and the sectarian clashes that preceded the rise of IS.
But while happy to be back on this line, Hassun — clad in the marine blue and white uniform of Iraq’s railways — proceeds with caution. So far, he has successfully pushed his new Chinese-built diesel train to 100 km per hour.
But he dare not go faster, as the rails have only just been brought back into basic working service by a team of dedicated employees.
“When we started the work, people mocked us,” says Yussef Thabet, the chief railroad engineer in Fallujah.
“But as soon as the first convoy entered the station, people were forced to believe it — and now they demand more trains,” he adds. There remains much work to do.
Fallujah’s old station is still in ruins, replaced for now by a pre-fabricated structure and plastic chairs.
But for passengers, the revitalised line is a vital link to the capital and the only alternative to polluted and grid-locked roads. Road travel is frequently made even less appealing by security personnel forcing traffic into unexplained detours.
For years, medical student Ali Ahmad took the minibus every week to a university campus in Baghdad.
Now in his final year, he finds taking the train aids his study.
“I revise in an air-conditioned carriage for an hour and a half, without being plagued by cigarette smoke,” he says. In the cafe car, a screen displays the outside temperature at 43 degrees Celsius, and the train’s speed at 91 km per hour.
On the journey back from Baghdad, 28-year-old Sinan Majid has his hands full of boxes. He has bought clothes to stock his shop in Fallujah.
“With the train, we know the time of travel. And there is no delay,” Majid tells, sitting at a table with friends.
For Lamia Ahmed too, the train is a godsend. — AFP