Long before the new Eithad rail network was a gleam in a planner’s eye, when the route of the Dubai metro was nothing but empty desert, the nation’s first trains trundled down the tracks.
Remembering UAE’s first railway
Long before the new Eithad rail network was a gleam in a planner’s eye, when the route of the Dubai Metro was nothing but empty desert, the nation’s first trains trundled down the tracks.
All but forgotten, they played a vital part in building Port Rashid in the early 1970s.
In the absence of adequate roads, the port’s construction consortium turned to rail to help them move the thousands of tonnes of stone and concrete to build the berths for the nation’s biggest port.
But while the tracks have long been torn up, a relic of what might be described as Dubai’s first golden age of rail still survives in a local park.
Engine number 3,655, also called L1, is the last survivor of five trains that were brought to Dubai as part of a standard-gauge light railway that ran several kilometres to the port’s site.
Constain Civil Engineering handled the cranes, workforce and five locomotives built by Baguely-Dewey at their works in Burton-on-Trent in what was then the heartland of British industry.
The rest of the package included tracks and dozens of trucks sturdy enough to carry the huge rocks that built the port’s breakwaters.
Port Rashid was completed in 1972, but the story of the UAE’s first train doesn’t end there.
Instead of taking the railway back to the UK, the builders handed it over to the city where it was resurrected as a passenger train in the new Mushrif Park, taking visitors on a scenic ride in carriages converted from some of the trucks.
For several years the train circled the park, and at one stage there were plans to expand the ride. In the end, the elderly diesel engine was taken out of service but it remains in Mushrif to this day,
Tucked in the back of the park, near a “Smurf village” and a collection of children’s rides and carousels, is the last resting place of the country’s oldest and loneliest train.
Painted turquoise green, with two red and yellow buffers that resemble bright eyes, the rumble of the engine is replaced by a symphony of “coos” from a group of pigeons that have taken up residence in its two wooden-bodied four-wheeled blue and red coaches.
Besides the occasional curious child, the birds have become the old train’s most regular passengers.
A small ramp built by the park officials allows visitors to enter the coaches and the driver’s cab. There they can stand where once a real driver controlled the 1968 English locomotive.
Some of the levers in the control room still move, but all the screen gauges and glass have been removed and painted over, giving the driver’s cab a feel of being frozen in time.
The intricate insides of the engine and twisted cables can be clearly viewed through covers that have rusted open.
The transformation is so complete it is hard to imagine the train was once a workhorse from a less pristine age when Dubai as a modern cosmopolitan city was still being built.
Four other locomotives, some built in the late 1950s, also remained in Dubai, but were less fortunate.
Two were immediately broken up for scrap. The others were exiled to Bayadat Quarry, about 30 kilometres outside of Dubai on the Al Ain road. They continued hauling rock until the 1990s when they met the same inevitable fate in the breaker’s yard.
Back in Mushrif Park, Zayed, 8, and his brother Mohammed, 5, run up to former Engine 3,655 to chase away the pigeons. After a few attempts at the controls and climbing up and down the steep steps on the other side of train, the boys lose interest.
“It doesn’t move. What is the point of it?” Zayed asks, as he runs over to a second “train” just a few metres away. Costing just Dh2 a ride, this more recent attraction runs around the park along designated paved tracks.
Like most of the trains that drive around the parks of the UAE, this one has tyres and is run on roads, not rails.
With no plaque explaining its story, the old locomotive stands alone and forgotten.
“It used to be quite a popular item to visit, as people here never seen a real train before,” said Ahmed Abdul Karim, who led the public parks and horticulture Department at Dubai Municipality for more than 15 years until this summer.
But once the new trains arrived visitors began to see the old stationary train as little more than decoration.
“People always look for something new to try and forget about the old rides and old structures,” said Mr Abdul Karim.
“Parks are more than just places for entertainment. Parks have become part of our fabric of life here and there is something for everyone in a park, even a trip down memory lane for some.”
Still, trains look to becoming an increasingly important part of life in the UAE. The country is investing more than Dh82.3 billion in five different railway projects as overseen by the National Transport Authority.
Those projects include Etihad Rail, the national railway, Abu Dhabi Metro, Abu Dhabi Light Rail, Dubai Metro, and Al Sufouh Tramway, all of which were designed to boost the national economy, said Dr Abdullah Al Nuaimi, Minister of Public Works.
“We believe that developing the national railway network will benefit the national economy and make it a centre of transport and logistics in the region, and the land passenger and freight transport network more sustainable,” he said this week.
As new tracks are laid, what remains of the old ones gently rust. The builders’ plaque still visible along the sides of the train reads “Butterley Co Ltd 1968 Builders” while others state “Codnor Park, Nottingham”, pinning the birthplace of the carriages before they arrived to the UAE.
The train’s second life spanned 1975 to 1981, with the track laid by Costain eventually needing too much maintenance to be viable.
“I prefer the real old thing and wish they would revive it,” said Khalid Abdullah, 40, an Emirati visitor to the park who recalls the old train from his childhood.
“I recall it was loud and that made it feel like a real thing. A train should have presence. I have been on trains in Europe and in Iran. They are an amazing experience.
“I can’t wait for our own national railway to start taking passengers.”