A tour involving notable firsts for the Society which only took place due to the enormous efforts and perseverance of our member Iain Scotchman. This became a truly memorable and probably unique tour covering all but a very small proportion of the currently possible lines in Jordan thanks to the assistance of the Jordan Hejaz Railway (JHR), Aqaba Railway Corporation (ARC), Aqaba Port Authority, our Jordanian travel agents United Travel Agents of Amman and of course the tour participants for all helping to make it such a resounding success. When you consider that much of the track (more than was thought before the tour) currently sees no regular traffic, it is perhaps remarkable we were able to travel right through from Mafraq via Amman to Aqaba Port.
Map courtesy of Iain Scotchman and Martyn Brailsford.
This report is mainly intended to record the tour events and relevant background information as opposed to a detailed historical overview of the railway which is documented in detail elsewhere, suffice to say that the line is 1050mm gauge (another first for the Society?) and was initially proposed as part of a 1,700km link between Istanbul and Mecca by the Ottoman empire. That goal was never achieved, the line ending 400km short at Medina, so, as the JHR’s only rail connection to other countries is via Syria, what remains today is an isolated system of around 480km in which there are two physically connected but separate passenger operations at opposite ends of the country with no public timetabled passenger service on either. The only services offered are tourist operations from both Amman and Wadi Rum, the latter over a very small part of a 1970’s built line for transporting phosphate from the mines to Jordan’s only port on the Red Sea at Aqaba.
The group comprised 38 people, mainly from the Society and LCGB along with two Germans, a Swiss, a Czech, a Hungarian and an Israeli. Inconvenient scheduled flight arrival times meant many people had only a few hours sleep before the first train departure. One person had seen his credit card gobbled up by an ATM whilst another was missing his luggage, though he did get it back later. Top prize for getting to the tour surely goes to our member Luke Ripley, who travelled overland to Salerno in Italy then by cargo ship to Israel and onward to Amman.
A coach was to shadow the tour with our luggage and this took us first to the University of Jordan in Amman where 4-6-2 No. 84 1612/1955 built by Nippon Sharyo of Japan is plinthed next to a fighter jet. The loco is planned to be returned to steam by JHR! Then it was onward through the heavy Amman traffic to the railway station where we got our first sight of Nader Malkawi, the JHR Manager for our train: a young Jordanian railwayman who spoke good English and had been instrumental in organising the tour for Iain. He was would be with us throughout to facilitate the tour and importantly act as liaison with the railway operations managers and non-English speaking train crew.
Amman railway station with the JHR museum in the former goods shed beyond.
The JHR Mission Statement featuring camels and steam loco, which are authentic, and a high-speed train set which definitely isn’t.
Our train, minus locomotive, was in a siding opposite the station building and comprised a restored former Hejaz Railway 3rd class open saloon and 3 coaches which were 2005 conversions on the chassis of Belgium built goods wagons. A generator provided power for the absolutely essential air conditioning. It was HOT out there, though quite pleasant on the verandas at the end of each coach while the train was moving. After a visit to JHR’s small museum, attention turned to the nearby depot with three diesels present and eight steam engines scattered about the site.
Rail travel was due to commence behind steam northwards to Mafraq near the Syrian border at 11:00 and No 23, a 2-8-2 built in 1951 by Robert Stephenson & Hawthorn in Darlington, was in steam but with vapour and water leaking from underneath the smokebox. All steam locomotives in Jordan are oil fired, and JHR were confident the broken boiler tube could be capped if the "fire" was dropped and, when
completed, it would be piloted by the diesel we were to have for the rest of the trip (American built GE type UM10 No 40210 of 1976) whilst it built up working pressure again. After a delayed departure at 12:42 this diesel insurance turned out to be a wise decision as No 23 blew another tube en-route.
Flagged away from Amman.
Just outside Zarqa station, the road crossing barrier fouling the line had to be lifted out of the way by a member of crew standing on the roof of the diesel. No. 23 is smoking nicely, but not powering.
Most of the route was in a dry valley overlooked by an almost continuous urban development of box-like apartments, and the area adjacent to the railway was basically a linear rubbish dump. There were moments of humour firstly when a crossing barrier was fouling the track and a member of the crew had to stand on top of the diesel to stop it damaging the loco and shortly afterwards when the smoke from No 23 drove a choking group of stallholders away from their trackside wares. No 23 was left behind at Zarqa, but not before providing assistance to the diesel after it encountered problems with dirt-filled rails on a road crossing and came to a standstill on an uphill section.
Diesel 40210 being assisted by No 23 approaching Zarqa. The minaret of the mosque was a bonus!
The new ‘cut and cover’ tunnel at Zarka with gate (usually locked) clearly visible.
The little station of Samra set in open country, finally away from the seemingly endless suburbs of Amman. The fence on the bottom left is made from old steel railway sleepers. The station building is just a shell with no roof.
Enquiries established our special was the first train to Mafraq since November 2015, but all major stations were still staffed and fenced in, with security guards at each loop end. There was one unexpected discovery on route as a section just north of Zarqa had been dropped from street level (where a busy market had spilled over the tracks) into a gated and fully floodlit tunnel deliberately built wide enough to accommodate 2 standard gauge tracks. It was unfortunately opened in early 2011, just after regular services ceased. A few of the group had travelled this section previously when either the international train or occasional steam charters from Damascus via Da’raa in Syria still ran, but these had ceased after Christmas/New Year 2010.
Arrival at Mafraq, our destination for the day, was almost 2 hours late so the planned coach trip to see another plinthed steam locomotive at Al elBait University was cancelled to recover some time.
The station at Mafraq is well maintained and manned with a picture of the King prominently displayed. JHR want to run excursion trains here in the future.
The tracks through the gate lead to Syria, 23km away.
Mafraq is 23km from the Syrian border, and not entering a border zone on FCO advice “due to the risk of small arms fire, stray mortars, or other attacks” is an excellent reason for not getting to the end of available track, (though in fact no trains are currently allowed beyond Mafraq), and another BLS first unless you want to quibble about MOD sites. Some people opted to return to Amman on the coach,
which took just 1h 5m (including a stop to photograph some camels) so it is no surprise that an attempt to run a commuter service had failed, even though Amman is now a sprawling city of over 4 million people due to an influx of refugees from conflicts in nearby countries. On the way back they saw No. 23 being hauled back to Amman in disgrace by a diesel.
On the train, the 61km journey back to Amman took 4h 10m but allowed a photo opportunity in lovely evening sunshine. As darkness was rapidly falling by arrival at Zarqa, the lengthy section south of the station through a street market was taken at walking pace. There was also a short stop to remove guy lines from an immigrant tent placed over the tracks at one point, so the journey back to Amman was slow! Arrival and a late dinner was after 10 pm, the coach returners being tucked up in bed by this time.
Day 2 also commenced from Amman and was again to be with steam but a different locomotive. Motive power for the morning was 2-8-2 No. 53 built by Jung in Germany in 1955, but masquerading as No. 52, which was scrapped in 1983. This was to take us the 37km to Al-Jizah, the limit of the weekend (that’s the Islamic weekend of Friday and Saturday) excursion trains, where our diesel, which had been sent ahead, would take over. This was a fantastic run through the Amman suburbs, with the engine working hard and storming up gradients and around switchback curves whilst whistling almost non-stop for the numerous level crossings guarded by staff in a pursuing pick-up track which was to shadow our train for the whole journey to Aqaba.
No. 53 waiting in the seemingly endless Amman suburbs to cross the viaduct for the waiting photographers. Beyond the viaduct the line loops though 180 degrees and its course can be followed on the hillside behind the loco. The train, of course, reversed back beyond this point after crossing the viaduct to ensure everyone got overlap. This was a BLS special after all!
A run past on the impressive ‘Ten Arch’ stone viaduct in the suburbs of Amman. The huge ‘Mega Mall’ under construction behind the viaduct is widely regarded as partially ruining the location.
After a highly entertaining 1hr 34m including a photo run past on the impressive “Ten Arch” stone viaduct in southern Amman, we reached El-Jiza station which was a hive of activity with preparations for a wedding, including more JHR coaches and two steam engines. Metal frames were being laid over the tracks and then covered with boarding to avoid guests walking on the sandy surrounds, and the moment the locomotives changed over these were placed over the rails they had just used. No other trains expected then…….
With that in mind, before the our departure there had been many protracted exchanges between Iain and potential tour participants, and Iain and the JHR to ensure we had written permission to travel over what was believed to be a 22km out of use section from Qatrana to Al Abiad, junction for the northernmost phosphate mine branch, as without this being agreed it would be impossible to take the train onwards to Aqaba. Additional approvals obstacles were that the JHR permanently leases the 171km section onwards from Al-Abiad to the divergence point from the formation of the now lifted line towards Medina to the Aqaba Railway Corporation, plus the tracks beyond Aqaba Depot were under Port Authority control. Most written assurances were eventually received but it was only during the trip that the final approval to reach Aqaba Port was given, rescinded, then given again. It was somewhat unexpected to discover we had been given approval to travel over a significantly longer section without any booked traffic than the 22km, as this applied to no less than 199 km of track between El-Jiza, through Qatrana, Al-Abiad and El Hassa all the way to the wagon repair workshops at Ma’an, plus the two phosphate mine branches in between! Logs at the stations on this section showed that the last locomotive hauled train from El Hassa mine to Aqaba Port had been on 25 October 2015.
The remainder of day 2 covered an 88km part of this section with no booked traffic from El-Jiza to Al-Abiad. Qatrana station forms the southern “operational limit” of JHR with its water towers, loops with stored freight wagons and long out of use turning triangle (condition of track prevented the requested loco traversal of this!). Beyond, the line just forms a connection between the JHR and ARC, and was assumed to have been long out of use (hence the protracted approvals process to ensure this section was covered by train. Indeed, the previous week when outline timings were received the suggestion was that this should be covered by bus!!. However, the track was in excellent condition, having been refurbished in 2016 to allow a JHR loco to run through to the ARC at Wadi Rum to move the tourist train stabled there back to Amman for maintenance and repairs, the train being returned to Wadi Rum in November 2016. The journey was by now falling into a routine. The train stopped at every station, some with a small building serving only a loop, others larger, perhaps with a water tower and shelter for PW trolleys. Few were within sight of other buildings and many were ruins set in a flat rather boring desert, home to occasional herds of goats, sheep and camels. Holes dug in the ground by the stations were rumoured to be dug by treasure seekers after Ottoman gold, buried after their retreat. More likely they were for rubbish disposal – though some captured a few unwary tour members.
A lonely loop at Menzil with ruined station building set in a desolate landscape.
Totally unexpected colour light signals with feathers greeted us as we approached Al Abiad at the end of the day. These, and the associated signalling panel here and at places further south, were of British Westinghouse/Plessey design but even though panels were working, most signals were not.
Al Abiad station is the junction for the branch to the Wadi Al Abiad phosphate mine. The picture is taken from the roof on the station building. The green inspection trolley which had checked the track ahead of the tour was parked up, this being the end of JHR working.
As Al-Abiad station is located right alongside the dual carriageway Desert Highway, our coach took us speedily back to the hotel in Amman, to resume from Al-Abiad the next morning by traversing the branch to the Wadi Al-Abiad phosphate mine. It had been noted that the rails on this, especially at a level crossing near the junction, were covered in sand with the flangeways completely filled in, so the two train-only bookers who had arranged to stay with the train crew in the station building were briefed to obtain shovels etc. That turned out to be unnecessary as three men in a van arrived at 10pm that night, so the tour duly reversed 2.5km to the mine office building, albeit very slowly as there had apparently been no phosphate train leaving there for four years.
Signals with feathers at Al-Abiad.
Day 3 continued heading south from Al-Abiad to the next phosphate branch junction, imaginatively named “Junction Point” at El-Hassa, 39km away, and the tour was travelling through desert under cloudless skies in relentless heat approaching 40oC. Travel speed never exceeded 30-35kmh, and that seemed dangerously fast on occasions as the train clattered and lurched over the rails, particularly at desert track crossings. The 4km El-Hassa branch was again taken very gingerly as it had apparently seen
no traffic since October 2015 and only very occasionally prior to then. We were told that the two mines had lost their traffic to road transport, although rail transport could resume if need be as they remain staffed by railway personnel.
Resumption of phosphate traffic from Al-Abiad
seems unlikely as the tracks to the loading silo have
been lifted and a road built across the trackbed.
The landscape recalls the Desolation of Mordor from the Lord of the Rings.
Everything is covered in phosphate ore dust.
The rest of travel that day was planned to be the 81km to the old JHR passenger station at Ma’an, which is on a short branch. On the way there was time to visit an old, ruined, Ottoman fort a few minutes walk away from the station across the Desert Highway at Anieza. Here no trace could be found of the junction to the short-lived war-time branch westwards to Najl. On arrival in Ma’an, we were signalled into the loops at the ARC 1970s built freight station alongside the wagon works on the main line in error. More organisation was needed by Iain, and what was agreed was
that everyone was asked to squeeze into the front coach which would be shunted to the old station and back, thus ensuring overlap, as tomorrow we would resume our journey from the ARC station. The layout at Ma’an is that the original JHR passenger route has now been lifted south of the old station and old depot, which is now used only by PW machines. It was replaced by a much straighter alignment alongside a fairly recently built wagon works in which it was noted that quite a few of the wagons were built by BREL at Ashford in 1975, along with others from South Korea and Belgium.
The sharp curve from the main line towards the old station and depot at Ma’an.
In fact the stock on the two railways is a right mixture with GE diesel locomotives built in the USA and Brazil, other steam engines than mentioned earlier built in Japan and Belgium, PW machines from Austria, Italy and Switzerland, and, as mentioned earlier, three of the passenger coaches used being 2005 conversions on the chassis of Belgium built goods wagons. With no goods traffic on the railway apart from the phosphate trains, many box wagons were seen stored, with the dry conditions obviously helping preservation, but even so coming across a grounded flat wagon at Jourdan station north of Ma’an with a works date of 9.12.1944 branded “For Haifa Pipe Traffic only” was somewhat unexpected! Online searches show this was related to the construction of an oil pipeline from Iraq to Haifa in the mid 1930’s, and that the Haifa – Da’raa line was allegedly sabotaged in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence and never reopened! Even older were numerous original rails on the main running line embossed “Cockerill 1900” or “1901” and it was noticeable that many sleepers were metal and dated from a similar period which seemed odd. A wiki Hedjaz website has the answer as allegedly the locals' developed a habit of pulling up wooden ones to fuel their camp-fires!
The original HJR station building at Ma’an looks to be securely fenced off from the railway but there are gaps you could drive a bus through! It is several hundred metres from the new station.
The new station at Ma’an is for freight services rather than passenger and is opposite the wagon maintenance depot.
From Ma’an the group was bussed to our Hotel in Wadi Musa, better known as the town adjoining the UNESCO site of Petra. A more relaxed train schedule than originally planned, due to the requested permission to view a plinthed Hedjaz Railway at Al Mu’tah University near Karak being refused, allowed a later departure the next morning which gave time for a rushed dawn visit to the archaeological remains at Petra for those that were not planning on doing so after the tour had ended. The hotel could best be described as ‘adequate’, but it was well positioned for the entrance to Petra.
Day 4 resumed at Ma’an with visits to the old depot (doors now opened) and the wagon works where our train was waiting. From now on the track is regularly used, as even though this is 55km north of the one currently rail served phosphate loading point, all wagon maintenance is done in Ma’an, The remaining phosphate loading point is named Aqaba el-Hedjaz, which is 122km from Aqaba Port and about halfway along a single track branch of approximately 900m length which curved east from the south end of the “station”. Loading is by a conveyor fed by large diggers from piles deposited by tipper lorries from the nearby El Shidiye phosphate mine located just east of the station. Our train could not traverse this branch as there was insufficient clearance though the loading bunker but also because a 31 wagon phosphate train behind two locomotives was being loaded when we arrived.
A train load of phosphate ore is loaded at Aqaba El-Hedjaz, preventing the tour from traversing this short branch.
Spectacular photos of the loading through phosphate dust clouds were obtained, each wagon apparently carrying 40 tons and taking 4 minutes to fill. There are usually 4/5 pairs of loaded and empty trains per day to/from Aqaba el-Hedjaz on a 24/7 basis which take 6 hours for a single journey with it being narrow gauge track and a winding and hilly route. En-route to Aqaba clear signs of at least four straightening realignments were noted as were many dumped axles and even odd wagons, presumably from derailments.
Just south of Aqaba el-Hedjaz was the easily discernible formation of the old line towards Medina which, following previous abandonment c1925, was rebuilt and re-laid southwards across the Saudi Arabia border in the mid-1960s following agreement to rebuild the line to Medina between the Jordanian and Saudi Arabian Governments. However, political concerns raised by the reconstruction caused the work to cease and the Saudis to remove the relaid track from south of the border in the 1970s. While it is doubtful if this was ever an active ‘real’ junction with the early 1970s Aqaba Railway Corporation built railway south to Aqaba - which is why there is a 0.0km post here - according to our Train Manager the junction was not removed and the track lifted on the Jordanian portion until 1999. More history to resolve!
The alignment of the former line to Medina in Saudi-Arabia. The line was built to allow pilgrims to travel to the Hajj in Mecca, a large proportion previously dying on the arduous overland journey. The rails were reportedly lifted in the late 1990s.
The tour train pauses where the original line to Medina branched off towards the photographer.
The scenery was becoming more lunar like by the minute and from here on the formation was built on an embankment to reduce the amount of sand blown across the rails. Soon the train was travelling through sand dunes and crossing the remotest desert area of the trip with our escorting pick-up truck having to use tracks in the sand. So they were very fortunate to be ahead of us rather than behind on one occasion as we caught up with them bogged down in soft sand! The train stopped and the crew assisted their colleagues to break free, allowing the tour patrons an impromptu photo-stop! Soon afterwards we came to the unbelievably spectacular mountainous desert scenery around Wadi Rum, our destination for that night. Our coach was waiting at Wadi Rum ‘station’ to take us on a short ad-lib tourist trip to Wadi Rum village where two Hedjaz Railway vans serve as a local art shop, before heading to our accommodation, a “Bedouin” village complex built in the shelter of a rock outcrop with the whole area again being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There were even steps built with electric lights on the way to the top of this rock face for those wishing to see a spectacular view, especially at dawn and dusk.
The Bait al Ali Camp in Wadi Rum covers and extensive area and includes both tented accommodation as well as conventional rooms. The ridge behind the camp has steps to the summit from where a fine panorama may be enjoyed.
Of great interest was that the ridge overlooked the broad valley with the railway passing below. Phosphate trains were heard but not seen during the night and your correspondent had the good fortune to see a PW trolley pass by when on the summit, this being just a small dot on the stunning panorama.
PW machine passing Bait Ali from the top of the ridge above the group’s Wadi Rum hotel. Wadi Rum is actually a complex of wadis (river valleys dry for most of the year) set in spectacular mountains and one of the top tourist attractions in Jordan.
A train of phosphate empties passes though Wadi Rum station. The steam engine and diesel used on the tourist train are to the right of it, while the tour train is furthest right, several photographers prudently standing in the shade of the locomotive.
Day 5 saw the group bussed back to Wadi Rum station where we had to wait for a train of phosphate empties to go by before the day’s travels started with a change from the advertised programme as since November 2011 the Aqaba Railway Corporation have tried to tap the tourist market at Wadi Rum by running, on demand, a lookalike Ottoman military train which is attacked by Lawrence of Arabia’s Bedouins on horseback. This to the uninitiated seems to be powered by Japanese-built 4-6-2 steam engine No 85, but the exhaust comes from a small steam generator and the sounds of a steam locomotive are from a loudspeaker in the chimney and it is actually pushed/pulled by the diesel loco immediately behind. The ARC were obviously keen that we use it, but the full Monty with attacking tribesmen was too expensive for most people, so a cut-price deal without Bedouins and steam engine was negotiated, which, with a little pressure from Iain, was agreed by almost everybody. It kept the ARC happy (remember we still needed to get to the Port at Aqaba through their good graces) and allowed haulage enthusiasts a 4km ride behind 1974 American built GE diesel type U17C No 32955, in a quite bizarre mottled ‘livery’ of green and rust.
The Wadi Rum tourist train arriving back at Wadi Rum station. Note the curve towards the camera, part of a disused triangle, partially covered by sand now.
A short time later back at Wadi Rum we transferred back to our train to continue the southwards journey. We were now having to fit in between trains on a working railway as we continued across the desert plain flanked by the spectacular Wadi Rum mountains towards Aqaba, with a stop at El Umran station where there was an obligatory brake test prior to the steep descent on the side of a deep valley down to the Red Sea port. A metal footbridge over the tracks, ostensibly for customs checks of empty trains from the Aqaba Freeport, allowed photos of the train and station. On the outskirts of Aqaba is the little station of El Ytum where we had a photo stop. This proved memorable for one tour participant as he contrived to fall whilst leaving the train and suffered a gashed leg which would require five stitches. With true British grit he refused medical attention other than first aid until the tour ended - fortunately now only a couple of hours away.
Approaching Aqaba ARC depot an escape line goes off uphill and left while the Port line swings round past rows of cannibalised locomotives and empty wagons to the depot building.
Noting the lengthy escape line which diverged left on approaching Aqaba depot, our special arrived alongside the depot office at Aqaba Railway Corporation km 111 at 13:05 for a ‘walk wherever you like’
depot visit during which our packed lunches were distributed from the coach, before heading off at 13:50 on tracks which had never seen a passenger train for the last 4km down to the port unloading facility.
The Port Management team wait for the tour train at the phosphate unloading terminal at the end of the line.
Here we were met enthusiastically by the Port Management staff with everyone receiving commemorative scarfs, and we were invited to stay to watch the arrival and unloading of the next train due at 14:30. After numerous photographs in the blistering heat our train returned to the depot where the rail part of the tour ended at 15:25 with presentations and grateful thanks to the train crew. Iain got a rousing cheer as well – his hair had turned even whiter during the tour. The remaining tour participants now headed by our coach to a resort hotel south of Aqaba for the night, with plans ranging from flights home as soon as possible to extra days for line-siding or tourism.
Group photograph with participants and train crew at Aqaba ARC depot.
A rather worn down Tour Manager leaves the front coach for the last time. Note the luxury of two air-conditioning units – the other coaches only had one!
As for the future of phosphate transportation by rail in Jordan, the whole port area has been sold to an Emirati Company who plan to build a new city and leisure complex on the site meaning the railway would lose its sea access. The ARC manager told us that there are plans to extend the railway 25 km down the coast to a new port, but he doubted it would happen, and seeing the narrow and crowded coastal plain with rugged mountains above most tour participants would agree with him – the railway would be extremely expensive. Since there is already a dual carriageway road connecting the Desert Highway direct to that port which totally bypasses Aqaba, It would be straightforward to transfer all remaining phosphate traffic to road transport. Apparently rail traffic has already reduced significantly in recent years and as the main customer at present is in India that is perhaps not as big an earner as it could be. Plus Aqaba has doubled in size in recent times and allegedly thousands more descend on the city each weekend, explaining the interest from the developers. It has been suggested that the freight service has as little as 1-2 years left before closure. This would then have a knock-on effect to the JHR who would lose their major income source, plus the tourist potential of the two operations is already seriously affected by the downturn in visitors due to the security situation in neighbouring countries. Overall the long term prospects do not look good.
The country itself was very friendly, with no problems in mingling as obvious tourists although it has to be said as a personal opinion of the writer that you needed to be vigilant on purchases of any description to avoid being overcharged or short changed. However all tourist locations especially those off the main tourist trail were genuinely pleased to see you with warm welcomes everywhere. As for additional BLS firsts not mentioned above, what we came up with were:-
- the first mainline tour to run without a member of the current Committee on board
- the first with a legal requirement to be accompanied throughout by both a guide and armed guard, i.e. a tourist policeman
- the first requiring a visa to participate
- the first with a shadowing coach throughout
- the first to view three countries at one time as arriving into Aqaba we could see Jordan, Israel and Egypt
- the hottest ever BLS tour, temperatures peaking at 42°C in Aqaba
- the southernmost, and easternmost tours run by the Society as well as the first outside Europe
- the first BLS tour to have to slow down due to a camel on the track ahead
And finally a question we could not answer. When was the last BLS Tour using a steam engine on a main line as opposed to on a private railway?
ARC locos 702 and 316 on phosphate empties between Wadi Rum and Disi. The BLS Special had travelled in the opposite direction on the Saturday. The photograph was taken on a linesiding trip after the tour.
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