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On The Road to Reconstruction
It’s 7 p.m. in Iraq. First Lieutenant Joseph Wanat answers his cell phone, ready to fill in a reporter on U.S. efforts to reconstruct the country’s national railroad. The U.S.-Iraqi war has done more than cause damage or destruction to hundreds of buildings, homes and roads.
Combat actions — including bombs thrown by Iraqi insurgents — and years of neglect have wreaked damage on track, communications and signal systems, rolling stock and train stations owned by the Iraq Ministry of Transportation and operated by the Iraq Republican Railroad, Wanat says.
Attached to the 888 Movement Control Team, a reserve unit from Providence, R.I., that’s now part of Multi National Force-Iraq, Wanat is stationed in Baghdad, where his primary assignment is rail operation and engineering.
The U.S. Army is heading a $210 million project designed to rehabilitate Iraq’s rail system and restore it to full operation. It wasn’t so much damage from bombs, but deferred maintenance, looting and vandalism that did in the railroad, Wanat says. Economic sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1990s made it difficult for the Iraqi railroad to obtain replacement parts, leading to maintenance deferrals.
“Many kilometers of track have missing ties, no ballast and large gaps between adjacent track sections,” he says. “[Our] military was very careful to avoid damaging the lines and only about 10 percent of our rebuild project [addresses] weapons damage.”
In a decade-long decline. The U.S.’ project budget includes $57 million for reconstruction work and $153 million for maintenance equipment, rolling stock and spare parts (which are under solicitation or scheduled for delivery). Because the Iraqi railroad’s locomotives were produced in six countries — including China, Turkey and Germany — most spare parts will be purchased from original suppliers located in those countries. Rail will be purchased from sources in Poland, the Ukraine and Russia.
Dating back to 1888, when Germany began building track, the Iraqi railroad wasn’t always in dire straits. Despite a construction slowdown during World War I, the road continued to build branch lines until 1987. However, the railroad’s condition began to deteriorate after the 1991 Gulf War.
Now, railroad officials are trying to manage operations while Iraq aims to settle its political future, says Wanat, who has to hang up and get back to work. Days later, he’s available via phone again. The Iraqis are attempting to keep 250 locomotives and 2,000 rail cars going, Wanat says.
Shortly after the U.S.’ initial combat operations ended in May 2003, the railroad operated about 70 trains per week. However, in spring 2004 — after insurgent gorillas began full-scale operations — weekly trains dropped to about eight, many of which are used for reconstruction efforts, he says.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — working with the U.S.-run Iraq Project and Contracting Office (PCO) — is providing quality assurance and oversight for the railroad reconstruction, with work being done by Iraqi firms using Iraqi workers. Some project funding also is coming from the Iraqi government.
Overseeing the services, supplies and infrastructure work funded by the U.S. government’s $18.4 billion Iraqi Relief and Reconstruction Fund, the PCO is responsible for managing the project, including finances and assets. A key project aspect is rebuilding 76 stations, including one in Baghdad, says Wanat, who needs to put down his phone again — duty calls. A few days later, with time for one more cell phone call, he describes the condition of the facility in Iraq’s capital. Baghdad Central Train Station, the Iraqi railroad’s headquarters and largest station, is in extremely poor shape, Wanat says. The plumbing doesn’t work, there’s no central heating or air conditioning system, and most of the building’s doors and windows are broken or missing.
On the double. The project has another key component, he says. American and Iraqi forces want to finish double-tracking the railroad’s mainline — a project the Iraqis began prior to the war. The mainline stretches 1,600 miles south from the Syria-Turkish border to Umn Qasr, the primary port for marine cargoes.
“We plan to have the double-track line from Basrah and the Turkish border in service by 2008 or 2009,” says Wanat, moments before he pushes the end-call button to finish tending to his day-long duties.
Progressive Railroading editorial staff.