Lebanon: Railway would boost economic growth

beirut lebanon railway
Multiple studies have been done to quantify the economic impact of congestion caused by the lack of a public transport system, with estimates ranging from 5% to 10% of Lebanon’s GDP. © Roula Messarra

Lebanon’s sick from its atmospheric pollution, sick from its overpopulated highways, sick from its lack of alternatives. Yet, the patient should get some effective treatments. Like establishing a railway network which will not only enable mass public transportation, de-clog congestion from Lebanon’s main arteries, decrease pollution levels and significantly aid economic growth in the country. The benefits are manifold.

Without a sustainable transport system in place, mass transit systems will only get worse. According to a 2015 working paper from the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut, the average delay per vehicle will jump by nearly 100% while the average speed will drop by almost 50%. Without a public transport system in place, trafic woes due to congestion will only worsen.

There are multidimensional benefits of installing a railway network in Lebanon. It will not only become the backbone of a public mass transport system but will also transport freight. The railways will be crucial for the upcoming reconstruction of Iraq and Syria.

Multiple studies have been done to quantify the economic impact of congestion caused by the lack of a public transport system, with estimates ranging from 5% to 10% of Lebanon’s GDP. According to a March 2018 press release by the World Bank, which incidentally has approved $295 million for overhauling Lebanon’s transport sector – specifically the Greater Beirut Public Transport Project – the cost of traffic congestion is astronomical.

“In economic terms, the annual cost of traffic congestion is above $2 billion, representing a large impediment to growth and regional connectivity,” said Ziad Nakat, a senior transport specialist at the World Bank, in reference to the absence of a railway network in Lebanon.

Saddled with high petrol import bill

The absence of a public transport system has saddled the country with a high petrol import bill which is negatively affecting the balance of payments. Case in point: in 2017, Lebanon’s exports stood at $3.91 billion while its imports stood at a whopping $20.8 billion; of this $3.77 billion was for refined petroleum.

If Lebanon develops its own railway network, it will significantly reduce this fuel import bill; furthermore it will also help reduce Lebanon’s carbon footprint if it was to adopt the latest technology in its implementation of the railways. Recent developments in train technology has enabled trains to run on non-emission hydrogen fuel cells.

Lebanon’s transport system accounts for nearly 23% of its green house gas emissions which can be mainly attributed to the road transportation sector, according to a 2016 report from the Ministry of Environment. While Lebanon has lost many past opportunities to develop its infrastructure including its energy, waste management, water, and transport industries, it is high time that authorities roll up their sleeves and give development a filip in the country.

In 2016, French railways company EGIS had conducted a feasibility study on installing three railway lines:

  • A Beirut-Tripoli cargo line to connect the ports of Beirut, Jounieh, and Tripoli;
  • A Beirut-Tripoli passenger line with eight trains per hour and a capacity of 2,000 passengers each;
  • An intercity train between Beirut and Tabarja with eight trains per hour and a capacity of 1,200 passengers each. Since then the Council of Development and Reconstruction (CDR) has yet to take any action on either accepting or rejecting the implementation of the railway network.

The CDR has yet to take any decision on the proposal to place a railway line between Tripoli and the Syrian border railway link, on which it has been sitting since 2014.

Generate employment

Rehabilitating the railway network will positively impact the economy, as well as provide employment; local unemployment levels are estimated to be around 25%. Doing so will not only create thousands of jobs, which will support the private sector, but it will be at no cost to the state. Further, the Lebanese government could also stimulate the economy by re-linking rail lines to its neighbors who are also in the midst of rebuilding their own rail network.

This is an opportunity for Lebanon to re-link its transportation network with its regional neighbors. Already many Chinese and French companies are leading railway projects in Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan. By installing its own railway network at this juncture, Lebanon could hugely benefit from this synergy and unique economic opportunity. If Lebanon were to play it smart, it could sidestep the debt-trap usually associated with the China and instead opt for more cost effective, robust solutions offered by others.

This is also another opportunity for Lebanon to connect to Europe.

A hundred twenty-four years ago, Lebanon had a railway network which connected the Beirut to the French port of Marseille in what is known as the Levant gate. Backed by German, French and Swiss technologies, French investments had brought Lebanon’s rail services to life. It was a shining example of cooperation between the East and the West which revolved and centered around Lebanon.

Lebanon once again faces an opportune moment in history. Its interests and benefits are manifold. It could reconnect the Levant region once again to Europe by installing a new Levant railway link which connects the southern part of Europe and North Africa to ports in Beirut and Tripoli ports.

Lebanon has to find the political will to benefit from this low hanging fruit. Its synergies are aligned, the benefits to its economy are plentiful, the job creation possibilities are numerous, and the benefit to its private sector are also manifold. Lebanon should not miss the train.