Iraqi Republic Railways
From Baghdad to Basra: An overnight train ride along the Euphrates River
The railways in Iraq date back more than 100 years. Originally laid down during the Ottoman Empire in 1914, the 600-kilometre line from Baghdad to Basra was once an international line running all the way to Istanbul’s Haydarpaşa station.
During the late 1990s, though, it was left to dilapidate after years of economic distress. But, in 2014, the Iraqi Republic Railways began to renovate its tracks and modernise its fleet in an attempt to return the railway to its former glory. Today, a popular sleeper train known as the ‘White Lion’ takes commuters from the country’s capital down to Basra, a southern city that sits on the Shatt al-Arab.
Sitting dormant at Baghdad Central Station, the White Lion – a polished, diesel multiple-unit locomotive – stands stoically against the skyline as commuters and employees wait for the clock to strike 6pm, the scheduled time of departure. Some gaze into the distance, others scroll past newsfeeds on their phones. Employees, too, gather for small talk or a cigarette break behind the check-in counters after distributing tickets.
Opened in 1953 and designed by architect J M Wilson, the station’s two clocktowers and central dome have an eclipsing presence. As a circular clock that hangs from the terminal ceiling reads 6.10pm, passengers begin to shuffle, gathering their belongings for the train ride to Basra. It’s a cold day. By December, the sun sets around 5pm, and the temperature quickly drops to seven degrees Celsius. The commuters climb onto the train, find their seats, and by 6.30pm, the train finally and slowly departs. The White Lion moves at 70 to 80 kilometres per hour, and consists of eight trailers, three of which include 10 sleeper cabins with four beds per room. Four other trailers boast 47 ‘first class’ seats, with wide, reclining chairs, while the rest are classified as ‘second class’ economy. The final trailer houses the train’s restaurant, with several refrigerators, ovens and boilers on the go, as well as an area for dining. Two television screens hang on opposite sides of the cabin. Passengers are offered two meal choices: a shawarma sandwich or fried chicken.
The train is full of different characters, each with different hopes for the journey. One such character is Abu Zeena, a maintenance worker on the White Lion, who has been working for Iraqi Republic Railways for nearly 35 years. He’s often in the restaurant, picking up after customers and forming ephemeral friendships.
‘I rely on the tips that passengers leave me,’ he says, referring to his duties. ‘But this month I’ll get my first salary because the Ministry of Transport has officially hired me as a temporary coordinator.’ Abu Zeena tends to the trailer with utmost care, collecting the empty cups of other passengers who sit at the restaurant’s tables exchanging stories with one another.
Most passengers on the train have relatives in either Basra or Baghdad, and frequently commute to visit their loved ones or attend meetings for work. ‘When I ride the night train, I know I’ll be able to sleep for seven to eight hours before reaching my work in Basra. And when I arrive, I’m usually refreshed,’ says Hussein Mushtaq, a 34-year old passenger. ‘If I took a taxi from Baghdad to Basra, I’d be frustrated the whole time because I would have to watch the driver. I’d be totally exhausted by the time I got there.’ Thamer Abass, Mushtaq’s cabin mate, says he also feels the tranquility aboard the White Lion, as he pulls out homemade food and shares it among the others.
The cost of a bed in a sleeper cabin is 30,000 Iraqi dinars (25 dollars), while a first-class ticket is 17,000 (15 dollars), and a second-class ticket is 12,000 (10 dollars). It’s a seemingly small price to pay for a comfortable ride through dozens of small Iraqi towns. And in every trailer, three policemen stand guard – a welcomed presence among the Iraqi passengers. ‘It’s a relatively safe trip,’ says Manaf Ghareeb, a policeman on the train, while enjoying a cup of tea. ‘But we come prepared.’
Outside the windows, a heavy fog descends on the surrounding landscape, with temperatures dropping to three degrees by the evening. The train passes through 140 stops along the original railroad route but stops only at a few, including Hilla and Diywaniya – both more than 100 kilometres outside of Baghdad. Each stop only lasts five minutes, sometimes less.
The train’s old radio system once played classic songs by artists like Oum Kalthoum throughout the cabins, but now it’s damaged, so the passengers ride in a peaceful, sleepy silence instead. The warmth of the train also helps commuters relax among the red leather seats, as they enjoy the company of others before succumbing to the quietness of the night.
The White Lion eventually arrives in Basra at around 5.20am the following morning. The arrival station is often empty. A small banner and a figure of a palm tree is the only indicator that passengers have finally arrived at their destination, lit by the soft yellow glow of the streetlamps on the pavements and old city walls just outside the gates. Beyond the station’s borders, taxis and minibuses wait for arriving passengers to make their way through the cold wind of the Shatt al-Arab, and the White Lion returns to its dormant state, waiting to make its trip back to Baghdad.