A far bigger attraction than Petra!

Tuesday, 08 January 2013 10:59

Seriously. Imagine if the Hijaz Railway was running a steam-engine service twice a week between Amman and Aqaba via Wadi Rum. This is not a pipe-dream. The trains could start within weeks!

The track is there anyway and used for occasional goods trains. There are six working steam locomotives and newly fitted out carriages, as well as the original that took King Abdullah I from Ma'an to Amman, at the birth of the state of Jordan. They are just sitting in the sidings at Marka, in NE Amman.

We have tried to jump start the railway into service. We don't seem to have the muscle!! Jordan's Hijaz Railway stays still and silent, despite its massive tourist potential and incredible history.

The Hijaz railway has a central role in the Great Arab Revolt and the story of Lawrence of Arabia. Built to link Damascus with the holy places of the Hijaz (Medina and Mecca), it was opened in 1908 and by 1914 was carrying 300,000 pilgrims a year.

During the First World War, the railway was a vital supply route for Turkish troops defending the Ottoman Empire. Arab irregulars, fighting for independence, ambushed the convoys, sabotaged the track and drove the Turks from their land. Their exploits are well documented in Lawrence's 'Seven Pillars of Wisdom'.

Until recently it was still possible twice a week to take the train north from Amman to the centre of Damascus (my wife's parents did it a few years ago). Political realities make it impossible now.

To the south the old line still runs beyond Ma'an and towards the Saudi border. Although the track has been removed on the final stretch, you can walk along the route and explore the decaying stations down to Mudawwara. For more history see this lovely site.        

However, all is not lost. A new line was opened up in 1975, that has the poential to be even more spectacular than the original. It was built to take phosphates from the mines in central Jordan for export.

The new track cuts through stunning, stark countryside to mythical Wadi Rum and the luxury resort of Aqaba on the Red Sea. However this section is only used for goods trains, which are seen almost daily trudging across the plains and through the gorge down to the sea; not a tourist or passenger in sight.

I'm happy to discuss in private the meetings we've had and the ideas we've explored. But as so often in Jordan, there's lots of interest and engagement but not much courage or action. It took us eighteen months to realise it was futile. We even wrote the copy for their nice little brochure.

Perhaps, if you have an obsessive vision, like me, of wanting to see the trains running regularly through the deserts of central Jordan, down to Aqaba, full of passengers, it would be worth trying again. We need expertise, enthusiasm and a sizeable investment to get it started.

Or if you have thoughts and ideas then you could comment here. Or send this link to anyone you know who loves steam trains. I have a more practical vision too, of hundreds of steam enthusiasts converging from Europe to help to get the service running; and hundreds of Jordanian former soldiers, repairing and maintaining the stations on the route. . .

But enough! Nothing's going to happen until we can find a way to overcome the disabling inertia that seems to keep the rolling stock of the Hijaz Railway confined to the station at Marka, with just the occasional brief foray as far at the airport.

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By the way, there are at least five ways of spelling Hijaz (transliterating from the Arabic); as far as I can see they are all acceptable:

Hijaz, Hijjaz, Hejaz, Hedjaz, Hijazi

they all apply to the coastal region of the western Arabian Peninsula bordering on the Red Sea; includes both Mecca and Medina.