Evoking memories of T.E. Lawrence and the Arab uprising against the Turks, Syria. Jordan and Saudi Arabia are planning to rebuild the Hejaz railway from here to Medina.
It is an ambitious project that has been talked about off and on for decades without result. This time it appears that the three countries are serious about it.
The single-track, narrow-gauge, 833-mile rail line was a marvel of its day. It was completed in 1908, during the region of the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II. Its working life lasted less than 10 years. When World War I broke out, the deset tribes of what is now Saudi Arabia backed the British in hopes of throwing off the Turkish yoke they had carried for four centuries. Arab raiding parties with Lawrence and other British officers repeatedly blew up track, bridges and rolling stock.
The old line is still in use between here and Amman, Jordan, with a few trains cautionsly picking their way down the deteriorating track. South of Amman, only a few rusting hulks remain on stretches of abandoned track.
Talk of rebuilding the line has been received with well-deserved skepticism in the Middle East. The project has been discussed, approved and even put out to preliminary engineering, and even those involved in the latest plan are not entirely convinced it will be carried out.
That is because it would cost about $1 billion and it is not clear where Syria and Jordan would come up with the money to pay their shares. In addition, the Saudis reportedly are reluctant to finance a project that would be an easy target for Israeli air strikes in the event of a new regional war.
At the moment, however, "this is very much a live project," according to Mounif Akili, secretary of the General Administration for the Recommissioning of the Hejaz Railway set up by the three countries to plan reconstruction of the railroad.
interviewed in his sparsely furnished office in Damascus' diplomatic quarter, Akili said the project is at a crucial stage-selection of an engineering consortium to prepare detailed construction plans. The plans will cover complete rebuilding of the railroad to modern European specifications, permitting a direct rail link between the Arabian Peninsula and Europe through Turkey.
Akili said an original list of about 100 prospective contractors has been pared to two, one an American-West German partnership, the other American-Indian.
The ministers of transport and communications of the three countries, which form the administration's governing board, were to have met this month to award the $20 million contract, he said, but the meeting was postponed without explanation.
"We don't know if it will be in a week or a month or when," he said. "Nothing is really going to happen until that contract is awarded."
He declined to speculate on the cause of the delay. Observers here believe it may have resulted from a governmental paralysis in Saudi Arabia caused by a prolonged absence of Crown Prince Fahd. It surely was not caused by the Jordanians, whose transport minister, Ali Suheimat, is a big booster of the project. He recently spoke of it as "vital," envisioning a major new transport link between Europe and the Arabian Peninsula, and said several countries are eager to provide financing.
Akili said the participants are convinced that the railroad is a practical proposal that would be economically viable.
"Freight traffic between Europe and this region has grown at a dizzying rate," he said. "The trucks just can't handle it. The question of economic feasibility has been settled." CAPTION: Map, no caption, By Dave Cook-The Washington Post