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Labib Mansour 26 Oct 2022

Historical Snapshot: Lebanon’s Railways Under the French Mandate

Rail first came to Lebanon under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. After the Empire’s collapse in the wake of World War I, Lebanon and its railways were put under the auspices of France by the League of Nations.

The first thing the French did was return control of the rail lines to the French company DHP (Société Ottomane du Chemins de fer de Damas-Hamah et Prolongements).

Competition between the British-controlled port of Haifa in Palestine and the French-controlled port in Beirut led to ramifications for the rail network, as both countries jostled to give their own port the advantage. Finally, an agreement was struck wherein the British would get control of more land in Palestine in exchange for increased French rights in Lebanon and Syria’s railways.

During the interwar period rail once again expanded through the region, the Taurus express, a line connecting Istanbul to Turkey’s interior, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq expanded into the region, bringing with it a connection between Tripoli and Beirut on the line’s route to Cairo.

After the outbreak of World War II, French presence in the region eased as the Vichy government’s forces were defeated and removed by the British and the Free French. Royal Army engineers from South Africa and Australia instead worked to connect Haifa and Tripoli, marking the first full line across Lebanon’s coast. This line would come to be known as the Haifa-Beirut-Tripoli Railway and would serve as a midpoint on the line between North Africa and Istanbul.

The line was never opened for civilian use, but was instead exclusively in the hands of the British military, even after French withdrawal and Lebanon’s independence. The British eventually abandoned the line in 1948 and insurgent Zionist militias in Palestine broke off the connection at Ras el Naqoura.