The International Steam Pages
Middle East Steam 1997/8
The main part of this page is my report of a September 1997 visit. I have now added a brief report of a visit in May/June 1998.
The 1050mm gauge Hedjaz railway was financed by Moslems from all over the world, running broadly north-south through what was the Ottoman Empire, from Damascus (now in Syria) and Amman (now in Jordan) to Medina (now in Saudi Arabia). In Damascus it connected with another earlier railway of the same gauge from Beirut (now in the Lebanon) finally known as "Société Ottomane du Chemin de fer Damas-Hama et prolongments' or DHP for short!. Much of the original system has been abandoned (the Israeli part for obvious reasons, the Lebanese part was badly damaged in recent wars and the southern part in Saudi Arabia never recovered from Lawrence of Arabia's attentions). The surviving parts in Syria and Jordan are only lightly trafficked except for that part linking the phosphate mines and the port of Aqaba (partly using a new line built off the old main line). In Syria there are diesel trains north-west and south of Damascus and a little freight. There have long been plans to convert it to standard gauge (and so join with the northern railways in that country), but with so much traffic on the roads this seems unlikely to happen. In Jordan, the Aqaba section is in the process of being 'privatised', the Amman section has already been sold off to a private consortium. In the short term, they will run the weekly Amman-Damascus international train and tourist steam specials, in the long term they have plans to convert the line into an electrified light transit system .
Broadly Jordan has 'modern' steam, while Syria operates the original Hedjaz and DHP steam locos. I visited the countries between September 6th and 14th on a tour which featured a number of charter trains, certainly the most expensive railway holiday I have ever been on (charters are expensive but the hotels were unnecessarily so), but it did satisfy a long held ambition.
Although there are a number of wrecks scattered around the place (including Nippon Pacific 85 at Ma'an), the current (potentially) active fleet consists of:
Of these, we saw all working except 82 which is under active repair and is predicted to be ready by the King's birthday in November. The most interesting section of line is that from Amman climbing to Qasir. Beyond here, the line through the desert is scarcely used although special trains are run as far as Qatrana.
Other locos seen on Amman shed were 53, 72 and 81. Three other locos are dumped north of the station and I believe others are preserved in the area.
On September 7th, 51 left Amman for Qasir with a short mixed consist at 08.30, performing a number of run pasts along the way arriving about 11.30. The train then returned tender-first. After lunch, 71 repeated the operation leaving at 15.00. Unfortunately, the loco suffered a number of problems en route and eventually a diesel was ordered to the rescue. By the time it arrived the loco had been repaired, but by now the light was first class for the arched viaduct about half way up the bank, arrival back in Amman being just after dusk.
On September 8th, 23 was in steam and performed some run pasts in Amman station, once the 2 coach international express had left at 08.00. 23 is not allowed outside station limits because of its poor mechanical condition. 71 was then attached to a passenger rake and once again ran up the bank to Qasir. We then transferred to Petra.
On September 9th, we visited the ruined city of Petra in the morning, while 51 and a diesel ran down to Qatrana with the passenger rake. 51 then turned on the triangle (in spite of the rows of derelict wagons which had been the origin of an outrageous demand for their clearance). From 15.00 to dusk, both locos then headed north, the diesel being detached for a number of run pasts in attractive locations in the desert.
On September 10th, at 07.00, 61 was in steam and proceeded to do several run pasts in Amman station. Unfortunately, the loco has no brakes of its own, so it was only let loose outside station limits with a diesel pilot. However, once again this was no problem for the photographers as the diesel was detached several times on the climb to the viaduct. Apparently, this was the first time 61 had left the station in over 20 years . Afterwards, we visited the Roman remains at Jerash and crossed the border into Syria.
On September 13th, after we came back from Syria, 51 was waiting for us in the early afternoon at Mafraq. We then ran back to Amman (initially with a diesel pilot), with the usual ration of run pasts as we climbed gently.
Overall, we did very well in Jordan, the main problem was the difficulty in getting the locos away from Amman sufficiently early, so that many of the run pasts were carried out after the sun was too high.
Syria's steam locos may be older than those in Jordan but they are in better condition. The railway apparently runs regular steam trains up to Serghaya from Damascus every Friday in the Summer School holidays (mid-July to mid-September). The present active fleet officially comprises:
Of these 805 is notable as being an ex-rack tank, while 260 and 263 were of special interest to me as they are identical with the Indonesian D51 class which was intended for the Hedjaz railway but was diverted to Java after Lawrence of Arabia's attentions. At Cadem Works, 2-8-0 91 (Hartmann 3040/1907) is nearing completion of a major overhaul, after which one of the 0-4-4-2T Mallets (961, Hartmann 3000/1906) will apparently be restored to running order.
On September 10th, at 14.30, we found 162 and 260 in steam at Der'a shed, with 161 and a wreck (a loco which had gone from tender to tank and mostly back to tender, apparently 66) also present. 162 then headed our special passenger train to Bosra. Although the sun angles, the wind and the dust made photography difficult we did manage two good run pasts before we reached the castle, where the 14th annual Bosra festival was in full swing.
Bosra is essentially a Roman town which has been occupied by later inhabitants although efforts are now being made to clear the central area. Its most famous feature is the Roman theatre around which has been built a castle. On September 11th, 162 posed outside the castle in the early morning light before turning and running our train back to Der'a.
Here 66 (Arn Jung 987/1907, see above) had been brought to life and shunted half a dozen wagons up and down the station yard, poking its nose out into the adjacent market. Afterwards, 162 went tender first down the old Haifa line, ran round at Muzeirib and backed its train several kilometres down the spectacular Yarmuk gorge where the railway is slowly being restored. At the moment much of it is blocked by landslides, originally it passed well below sea level before climbing back to the coast. After a brief visit to see the preserved loco (61 - like 66 but with tanks) at Muzeirib Lakeside, we got ready for the afternoon's entertainment.
260 headed the train towards Damascus, with the usual run pasts although again the scenery and wind made photography less than totally satisfying. We left the train some way south of Damascus in the dark, but I had the satisfaction of riding on the footplate for nearly an hour on the way. The quality of service at our so-called 5 star hotel was appalling (and the noise made it difficult to get to sleep) somebody should tell tour organisers that the secret of success is to use a 2 star hotel which gives guests the 5 star treatment
Damascus station is a magnificent building, with preserved locos 62 (outside) and 751 (inside), but it is sadly underused. On September12th, we had a charter passenger train from Damascus to Serghaya and back. This is the DHP line which originally ran to Beirut and unlike the main Hedjaz line it has all the trappings and atmosphere of an extended narrow gauge line. Everything in Syria dates from the 1890's and in recent years it has seen very little traffic. Our train was headed by 754, but we had to fit around the regular 08.00 Fridays only train hauled by 805. We left at 08.45 and once again, the sun angles were less than perfect as we climbed north and west through the wooded valley into the mountains. Finally, we entered a spectacular rocky gorge where the midday sun made photography difficult before we climbed again to a wide valley full of fruit trees just a short distance short of the Lebanese border. It must have been a long time since there were two steam locos together at Serghaya. We started off back to Damascus first, before allowing 805 to overtake us. Unfortunately, it was running rather late, which meant that our photographic efforts were largely in vain as the sun set early among the high hills. Nevertheless, it was a marvellous day out behind our centenarian loco.
On September 13th, we chartered 805 to take us to Cadem Works in the morning. It performed a series of excellent run pasts first thing in the station before setting off. Unfortunately, our tour leaders belonged to that class of photographer that prefers to have no evidence of local human economic activity to spoil the master shot and we were restricted to a single run past in the streets of Damascus.
Cadem Works is a delightful relic of the First World War era, the shops have masses of belt driven machinery and outside numerous locomotive wrecks have trees growing out of them. Now and again they manage to complete an overhaul and most of the Hedjaz railcars are here unserviceable.
We had achieved everything that was set out in the itinerary for Syria. However, with hindsight, the tour leaders were not sufficiently familiar with the lines we covered and an obsession with obtaining front three-quarters shots in outstanding scenery meant that we missed opportunities where more imagination was needed. Still, I think virtually everyone on the trip was satisfied overall.
The standard book on the Hedjaz Railway is by R. Tourret, ISBN 0 905878 05 1. It is available from the Continental Railway Circle at 25, Woodcock Dell Avenue, Kenton, Harrow, HA3 0PW, England for £16.95 post paid in the UK, £17.95 overseas. The Hedjaz and DHP Railways are also covered in 'Middle East Railways' by Hugh Hughes, published by the Continental Railway Circle, ISBN 0 9503469 7 7, but it is now effectively out of print.
Hans Hufnagel (Email email@example.com) has sent me this report of a more recent visit:
"Between May 30th and June 4th 1998 a group of Austrian railway enthusiasts organised some special trains at the last parts of the Hedjaz line in Syria and Jordan.
May 30th : Loco 754 took a passenger train from the Hedjaz station through Damascus to the repair works at Cadem.
May 31st : a special train consisting of one baggage van, 3 coaches and loco 805 ran from Hedjaz station to Serghaya and back.
June 2nd : on this day there were seen two steam locos with two special trains in the
June 3rd : on this day a mixed train ran to the to Yamurk valley. Pilot was was loco 260 and banker loco 162. In the afternoon the group was transported by a Jordanian train with Jordanian loco 51 from Deera to Amman. Passports were checked and visa were issued during travelling in train by the Jordanian officials. The police said that this was the first steam special crossing the border for many years. The visa for the Austrian group had number "1".
June 4th : A mixed train was scheduled from Amman to Qatraneh with loco 82. Unfortunately at Mahattat Suwaqa ( Suaka ) a pipe cracked and the steam entered through the fire box into the cab. The only thing the crew could do after emergency braking was to jump out of the loco to survive. The last part was done with a diesel.
The "Jordan Times" reports that the Hedjaz line in Jordan will be restored in the future by investing some millions. It's not clear that they will also repair the interrupted part between Qatraneh and the "Phosphate line" - the Aqaba railway. This would be good news not only for railway enthusiasts, also a important step for tourism. The steep climb of the Aqaba line to the Hedjaz line is would be an extraordinary journey in this exciting landscape. "
(This latter part of the report is somewhat in conflict with what we were told during our visit in September 1998. Rob D.)