Iraq rail service back on track after war with ISIS

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At Baghdad’s grand but half-empty railway station, a single train is sputtering to life. It is the newly revived daily service to Falluja, a dusty town to the west once infamous as a Sunni insurgent stronghold.

The driver and conductor assure that the tracks running through Anbar province are now clear of mines planted by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and of collapsed bridges the group blew up when 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 Falluja in 2016 and defeated them in Iraq in late 2017.

After a four-year hiatus, hundreds of rail passengers now travel the 50km between Baghdad and Falluja in just over an hour. By car, the journey can take several.

“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 (S$3.50) 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 42-year-old, a Falluja resident 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 a vivid example of Iraq’s attempts to recover from decades of unrest.

Passengers see it as a metaphor for the country’s state: 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 allow a steady pace of up to around 100kmh, 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 cruise by.

“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,” 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.