All aboard for Fallujah: rail link with Baghdad back on track
Iraq's railway infrastructure destroyed by decades of war and sanctions
At Baghdad's grand but half-empty railway station, a single train is sputtering to life. It is the newly revived daily service to Fallujah, a dusty town to the west once infamous as a Sunni insurgent stronghold.
The driver and conductor assure passengers that the tracks running through Anbar Province are now clear of mines planted by ISIS. The group also blew up bridges as it marauded through western and northern Iraq in 2014.
The rapid advance of the militants shut down the line, before US-backed Iraqi forces drove them out of Fallujah in 2016 and defeated them in Iraq late last year.
After a four-year hiatus, hundreds of passengers now travel the 50-kilometre railway between Baghdad and Fallujah in about an hour. By car, the journey can take several hours.
"The train saves time. The Baghdad-bound leg arrives at 8am, which suits my schedule. It's also cheaper" than by car at 3,000 Iraqi dinars (Dh9) for a ticket, commuter Thamer Mohammed said.
"You don't have to stop at checkpoints, and it's safer. You avoid road accidents," said the Fallujah resident, 42, who is studying for a history doctorate in Baghdad.
The revival in July of the daily service, once a feature of an extensive rail network dating back to the Ottoman Empire, is an example of Iraq's attempts to recover from decades of unrest.
Passengers see it as a metaphor for the state of the country: security has improved enough to allow unhindered passage through countryside dominated for years by ISIS and Al Qaeda militants. But the train is dilapidated and shudders as it gathers speed.
The state of the tracks allows a steady pace of up to about 100kph, but no more. Dozens of windows have been smashed by children who play in the dirt in poor Baghdad districts and pelt carriages with stones as they pass.
"I hope the service will keep running, but in the last few days there have been delays. Sometimes it runs out of fuel on the journey or has technical failures," Mr Mohammed said.
Abdul Sittar Muhsin, a media official for the national operator Iraqi Republic Railways, said the company was in dire need of funding to keep the service running.
"We did this with the company's money and we're operating at a loss," he said.
Regular passengers include unemployed young people looking for work, a perennial problem in Iraq where demonstrations over lack of jobs, water and power turned violent in southern city Basra in September.
"I had a job interview with an NGO today in Baghdad, but I'm not holding out much hope," said Yassin Jasim, a recent medical graduate. "I try to get casual work in Fallujah, but there's little and it's low pay."
Mr Jasim and his family moved to the relative security of Erbil in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq while ISIS held Fallujah.
The city and fertile countryside along the Euphrates River suffered a series of bruising battles after the US invasion in 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein. Fallujah became infamous in 2004 when four American security contractors were killed and their bodies hung from a bridge in the city.
Everywhere are reminders of a delicate security situation. Armed police patrol the train, which runs past a scrapyard of cars destroyed during fighting and the remains of a road bridge blown up by militants.
Railway officials hope to restore services all the way to the Syrian border. Iraq's rail network, developed during the British mandate period and under Baath Party rule in the 1960s, used to stretch to Istanbul and Aleppo in Syria, via Mosul in northern Iraq.
Conflict with Iran in the 1980s, UN sanctions in the 1990s and violence since then have wrecked most of the old network, apart from regular services to Basra and now Fallujah.
Plans to extend beyond Fallujah might be ambitious – tracks are buried in sand and Iraqi forces have been reinforced at the border after recent ISIS counter-attacks in Syria.
For now, the Fallujah line is a big step forward.
"It's great, I can regularly see my daughter now who is marrying a man from Fallujah," one woman said. "At the moment, things are fine."
Updated: November 11, 2018 03:21 PM