The International Steam Pages

Once upon a time, long ago,
The Hedjaz Railway: Damascus to Amman, 1981

Wilson Lythgoe has been circulating friends with some steam pictures taken some time back and with his permission and encouragement they are reproduced on these pages and will be added to from time to time. Click here for the index.

With the present strong Australian dollar I have recently purchased, from Amazon, "The Hejaz Railway" by James Nicholson. A good read plus lots of historical and modern day photos. I'd followed that up by another viewing of "Lawrence of Arabia"....that great action film from the 1960s. If you haven't seen it you don't know what your missing! That all gave me a renewed interest in my September 1981 visit so out came the slides..........

Back then there was very little tourist or railway information available about Syria and Jordan. All I had was a map of the area, a copy of the first edition of the Thomas Cook International timetable and that was it! Tensions were high in the area so to give my rail fanning activities some legitimacy I had written to the relevant railway authorities asking for permission to take train photos. From the two Syrian railway authorities I had received replies very much in the negative and nothing back from the Jordan Hedjaz Railways. After my difficulties entering Syria it seemed to call for a very low key approach if not a case of keeping the camera hidden altogether.

In those days there was no railway going all the way from Aleppo to Damascus like there is now. Then it went from Aleppo to Homs in Syria before heading into Lebanon which was definitely a no go zone. The only passenger service consisted of a mixed train each afternoon between Aleppo and Homs. I wanted to travel on it as far as Hama, about two thirds of the way, where I could see the giant waterwheels, overnight and then continue onto Damascus by bus. The ticket seller spoke English and was not keen on selling me a ticket as the journey would take four hours compared with the buses two. Pleasant persistence won the day and for 60c I was allowed to join a handful of other people to trudge along the tracks and join the single carriage sitting at the head of a long, diesel hauled, freight train. No need for the camera here!

As an aside, compared with officialdom, the ordinary citizens of Syria and Jordan were a fantastically friendly and hospitable people and I cannot speak highly enough of the way I was treated by them. To quote from a letter home about my arrival in Hama where the station was on the outskirts of town: "Got lost getting from the station to the centre of town but by asking around found someone who spoke a little English. He wouldn't give me directions but absolutely insisted on taking me in his truck the couple of miles and leaving me at a suitable hotel. The hotel owner got his son to take me round the corner to the bus office to book my seat for Damascus tomorrow..........dined that evening with the hotel owner, a communal dish of some sort of pasta and chili which was not to my taste. He on the Raki bottle and myself sticking to beer."

And so to Damascus and the Hedjaz Railway with its twice weekly passenger train to Amman in Jordan. No street maps were available in Damascus and no one seemed to know anything about the train but by good luck I managed to find a tourist bureau in what seemed to be a main square. I was again assured there was no station or trains in Damascus but a quick scan of a map on the front desk, while the clerk was elsewhere, showed a railway station on the other side of the square. I found the station (about 100yards from my hotel) with a timetable in English so was all set for travel.

Two days later I presented myself at the station at 8am for an 8.30 departure. A large crowd was trying to buy tickets and with only one window in operation was being kept in control by a number of policemen. One immediately headed for me (and I thought that's the end of this little jaunt) but no it was to take me round the back and inside the ticket office for immediate service.... for an inflated price of course! At least I had ticket though so off to join the train consisting of nine coaches, a few freight wagons and a modern diesel.

Either 61 or 62 shunting at Cadem: a grab shot as my train was drawing to a stop at the station. Originally supplied as 2-6-0 engines in 1906 both 61 and 62 were later rebuilt as 2-6-0T. By now I had gained enough courage to think I may get away with a few pictures as long as I was careful!

From Damascus to Deraa the 126km took just over three hours with what felt like speedy running on the rough track.

Once at Deraa the diesel came off the train and backed down through the yard heading towards the servicing point.

161, a 2-8-0 built by Borsig in 1914, then proceeded to remove the freight wagons from the train.

Officials had collected all passports soon after leaving Damascus. I assumed formalities would be done as the train travelled but obviously not as the half hour scheduled stop at Deraa stretched out to three hours. Time to fill in so a carriage picture: what makers plates I could find read 1905. In 1906 a Lt Col Maunsell had written that '.....coaches were in an extremely neglected state. There were hardly any windows in the carriages......' After my trip I wrote to my parents '.....either no windows or cracked, absolutely filthy' so obviously not much had changed over the years!

A quick walk down to the depot where a dead 66 was sitting outside. 66 was a sister engine to 61 & 62 and had also been rebuilt as a tank engine but by the look of this photo the tanks had been removed and a tender of sorts attached for water and fuel. I didn't investigate closely.......all Syrian photos were grab shots and then putting the camera away again quickly!

Mid afternoon a wooden bodied railcar, De Dion Bouton ACM3, turned up and started loading passengers. Probably this was the afternoon service heading out on the branch to Bosra.

A diesel from the Jordan Hedjaz Railway took the train from Deraa through to Amman. Seen here at the Jordanian border station of Mafraq (40km after Deraa) the little General Electric (makers number 40210 I think) waits in the late afternoon sunshine. Passports were eventually returned by officialdom standing on the carriage platforms, yelling out the persons name and then throwing the passport in the general direction of whomever had replied! I had been told that however long the train was delayed in Deraa the Jordanian authorities would hold it for exactly the same amount of time at Mafraq: in this case another three hours. It eventually arrived in Amman at 9.30pm that night: the journey scheduled to take just over six hours for the 225 km had stretched out to a 13 hour marathon! Wilkie Young in 1904 wrote that the carriages were extremely dirty and had no form of lighting. Both comments were still true in 1981 with the final three hours travelled in darkness and tickets being checked by torchlight.

I went back to Amman station the next day. I asked if I could photograph their steam engines and was given a very brisk, escorted tour. A plate collectors dream; the cab side plates of 53, a 2-8-2 built by Jung in 1955. What caught my imagination was all the information in both Arabic and English on the loco plate: railway name, loco number and country. The manufacturers plate seems almost mundane by comparison.

Number 71, a 2-8-2 built in Belgium in 1955. In the background is 82, a 4-6-2 built in Japan in 1953 for Thailand but never delivered and ending up in Jordan in 1959. The loco shed in the left background probably dates from the early 1900's when the line first reached Amman.

A general shot of the depot area: on the left 71, left background 82, right background one of the 2-6-2T supplied in 1955 and on the right 53.

I had succeeded in travelling on that part of the Hedjaz Railway that still had a passenger service......originally the line stretched a further 1100km south through the desert to Medina in Saudi Arabia. Now that would have been a trip!

Rob Dickinson