BACKTRACK: The gulf's first 'metro'

Is this a lost Metro system? You decide

Wrecked locos, waggons and other infrastructure still lines the path of the long-dead railway.
Wrecked locos, waggons and other infrastructure still lines the path of the long-dead railway.

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The costly and ill-fated Hejaz Railway moved people from Damascus to Medina for only eight years

The history of the metro in Dubai is not a very long one. The tenders were awarded in 2004, ground was broken on the 10th of July 2005, and since then the project has been shooting forward at more than 250m per week – an astonishing rate of progress in anybody’s book.

However, it is not the first rail system in the UAE – that particular honour goes to the light network built during the construction of Port Rashid in the 1970s and covered on this page in an earlier edition.

Nor is it in fact the first metro system in Arabia, though few, if any people will remember traveling on it. This is the railroad that ran between Damascus in Syria and Medina in KSA, completed and opened in early September 1908.

Like the Metro, it was a narrow-gauge light rail system which was solely for speeding passengers along the route. Also like the Metro, it sprang up in a short space of time, with 1060km being built in just seven years. Unlike the metro, it was built through some of the most hostile terrain imaginable, with the Midian, Nafud, and the Hejaz Mountains in the way.

Also, unlike the metro, there was no pressing economic need for the railway. It was thought that it would be convenient for pilgrims to Mecca (though, as mentioned, it actually stopped at Medina, as an extension to Mecca itself had been drawn up, but construction never started.)

Additionally, it seemed like a reasonable plan to have a method of moving troops around Arabia at a reasonable speed, and it was thought that a way of connecting the very traditional villages and towns along the route might bring them into the twentieth century.

Construction work must have been brutal with very little in the way of heavy equipment, even of the steam-powered variety to help. As such, shortcuts were taken, which would be unthinkable to anybody contracting on a rail project today. For example, temporary embankments were shoveled together, in order that the train might navigate over wadis.

Such a railway was never going to be cheap, and municipal spending was an unknown quantity at the end of the Ottoman Empire. As the rail would be used for transporting people to be near holy sites, it was designated a ‘waqf’, which is an Islamic charity project. As such, the rail was open to public subscription and money rolled in from sources such as the Shah of Iran and the Khedive of Egypt. As such, the railway was completed with no debt.

The age of the train was short lived though. The Ottoman Empire crumbled during the First World War and the railway was bombed while moving Turkish troops.

By all accounts it could have been repaired, but there was little will to do so on the Saudi Arabian side of the border. As such, the majority of the railway was left to rust just eight years after opening. As you can see in the pictures, some of it – including station buildings, tracks, cars and even locos still there, a n absolute paradise for vintage train spotters.

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PMV Middle East - September 2020

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