Jordan's rail system looks to move beyond hauling domestic freight

With one of the region’s first rail links – the Hejaz Railway – running through its territory in the early 20th century, Jordan has a long history when it comes to rail transport. The kingdom still has two important railroads that carry freight, and there are plans for a major extension of the system to add more stations and routes, as well as increase passenger numbers.

Sector planners see railways as a potential solution to many of Jordan’s current transport problems, as it is a mode able to take large quantities of cargo off the highways, while also relieving congestion for commuters in the busy metropolises. Moreover, rail promises an effective means of boosting regional trade, with a long-term vision of a network that will one day link Amman with many other parts of the Arabian Peninsula.

At the same time, railways can be an expensive and competitive business, with the implementation of rail schemes in neighbouring countries causing some concern over the potential for the iron road to disrupt current trade patterns and alter competitive advantages.

Rail Operators

The kingdom’s rail system currently consists of two networks, one run by the Aqaba Railway Corporation (ARC) and the other by the Hejaz Railway Corporation (HRC). Both companies come under the authority of the Ministry of Transport (MoT) and each operate narrow-gauge line. The ARC, established in 1975, initially connected mines at Batn Al Ghoul with the Port of Aqaba. An additional 22-km section, linking to the phosphate mines at Al Abiad, was later added. The ARC, which operates nearly 300 km of track today, is therefore a vital cargo carrier for Jordan’s phosphate exports and a mainstay of its chemical and fertiliser industries (see Industry chapter).

The HRC, meanwhile, maintains the descendant of the original Hejaz Railway, which was initially created to carry pilgrims from the Ottoman Empire to Makkah. Today, the HRC does not run the railway for this purpose, however, but instead operates it from the Jordanian-Syrian border to Abiad Station, a distance of around 215 km. The conflict in Syria has thus affected the line significantly, terminating the Amman-Damascus route, which had been the only passenger service in the kingdom. However, the line still runs some tourist services by special commission. A plan to boost the railway’s appeal to tourists has been proposed, which involves the rehabilitation of old steam locomotives and the line’s distinctive Ottoman-era stations.

National Network

In 2010 the government approved a plan to develop these existing links within a national railway network (NRN), at a cost of JD2.1bn ($3bn). This 897-km, standard-gauge system is expected by 2023 and will link points within the country as well as connecting the kingdom with Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. In joining with Jordan’s southern neighbour, the NRN would form part of the wider GCC network that is expected to run from Oman to Kuwait. Although the network was initially borne with freight in mind, it could potentially carry passengers once established. China is particularly interested in Jordan’s NRN plans, signing a $2.8bn investment agreement for the system in 2015 as part of a larger package covering various projects.

Plans for another line, linking Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport to the nearby city of Zarqa, are also in the advanced stages. This line would complement the bus rapid transit (BRT) system (see overview) and ease congestion – and accidents – on the roads.

Hurdles

Rail is not without its challenges, however. Efforts on the NRN have run up against high costs at a time of fiscal conservation, as have plans for urban light rail and metro systems. In April 2017 neighbouring Israel proposed a rail link between the Port of Haifa and Jordan using its Jezreel Valley railway, which currently ends just short of the Jordanian border. Jordan, however, has no plans to build a freight railway with Israel; the line is likely to have an adverse effect on trade through Aqaba if constructed. Still, the period ahead will see development of Jordan’s rail network, with passenger transport likely dependent on the success of the BRT.

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The Report: Jordan 2018

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