Bechtel is co-ordinating reconstruction on Iraqi Republic Railways, which conflict and lack of maintenance have left in a poor condition. Following a rapid assessment of the infrastructure, work has begun on a major upgrade of the route from Um Qasr to Shouaiba Junction

THREE WARS, deferred maintenance, limited renewals, non-existent signalling and run-down rolling stock have left Iraqi Republic Railways hard-pressed to operate a viable and safe service.

In April 2003 the US Agency for International Development awarded Bechtel a reconstruction contract encompassing eight infrastructure sectors, now valued at a total of $1·03bn. To be completed in December, the programme covers railways, ports, airports, water & sewerage, power, bridges, buildings and telecommunications.

In the rail sector Bechtel is working jointly with IRR to construct a new line in the southern governorate of Basra. We are building the line to European standards, and when it is completed this summer it will aid the movement of freight inland from Um Qasr, Iraq's only deepwater port.

USAID is funding Bechtel's work, while IRR's share is paid for through the Iraqi Ministry of Transportation. The United Nations Oil for Food Program had provided funding before the recent war for some of the permanent way materials and construction equipment being delivered.

Rapid assessment

Our first task was to perform a rapid assessment of the condition of the network, which stretches for approximately 2200 route-km, with around 200 locomotives, 10000 wagons and 12000 employees. Although it sustained only limited damage during last year's conflict, the network has suffered from 30 years of significant sabotage and theft as well as the Iran-Iraq and first Gulf wars. Deferred maintenance throughout the system exacerbated the problems.

Bechtel met with IRR, the Office for Reconstruction & Humanitarian Aid (now called the Coalition Provisional Authority), and US and British military representatives to evaluate existing rail operations and prioritise requirements for urgent infrastructure improvement.

It was agreed that the six-week assessment would focus on the main route extending 1100 km from Um Qasr on the Persian Gulf to Rabiya on the Syrian border. Various international contractors built the line north of Baghdad between the 1920s and 1940s, while the line south of Baghdad was constructed by the USSR in the late 1950s and 1960s.

IRR provided a three-car inspection train for the rapid assessment, powered by one of the 50 diesel locomotives supplied in 2002 by China's Dalian Locomotive & Rolling Stock Works.

Owing to poor maintenance, train speeds range from a maximum of 80 km/h down to 40 km/h in many locations. We found many sections of track where up to 80% of the fastening and sleepers had failed. Throughout the network we saw evidence of theft, looting and sabotage of rolling stock, construction equipment, offices, road vehicles, workshop equipment and stores.

There is no operational signalling on the network, with the only communication being by unreliable commercial mobile telephones. Optic fibre conduit had been laid on a substantial proportion of the line, but the cable was never installed.

A second track located 5m from the existing single line had been planned alongside the entire route from the Gulf to the Syrian border, and was partially complete over approximately two-thirds of the route.

The line from Haditha to Kirkuk, built by Hyundai in the 1980s, had been severed east of Bayji during the 2003 war by the bombing of a bridge across the River Euphrates.

Implementation plan

Following the rapid assessment we proposed several projects for fast implementation, with completion by December 2004. These include the provision of a VHF radio system, a new rolling stock repair facility in the port of Um Qasr, construction of new track in various locations, and appointment of Bechtel technical advisors to support IRR.

Following discussions with USAID, CPA and IRR representatives and considering the available budget, we decided to implement the immediate replacement of the badly-deteriorated branch from Shouaiba Junction through the city of Al Zubeir to the port of Um Qasr. This will significantly expedite the movement of food, humanitarian aid and general cargo from the vital port.

IRR and Bechtel worked together to prepare an integrated plan to complete the work by December. This is designed to maximise local participation, and make the maximum use of all available sources of funding to minimise the cost to IRR. The integrated project approach means IRR and Bechtel staff work together very closely. The Bechtel rail management team has four full-time staff, two from the USA and two from the UK, plus nine Iraqi engineers.

We are providing selected IRR employees with training in track construction and project management through hands-on experience and specialist seminars. The CPA arranged for six IRR officials to visit the USA in January to see Union Pacific and Amtrak in operation.

The project consists of a 56 km replacement line being constructed parallel to the existing track; within the Old Port area 16 km of track and 35 turnouts will be replaced. The line is being built with UIC 60 rail, and has been designed for a top speed of 140 km/h. Construction began before the recent conflict, and approximately 40% of the earthwork and culverts had been completed. Traversing a desert area, the alignment is very level with only a few large embankments and cuttings; there are no bridges.

To take advantage of IRR's construction capabilities, IRR teams are laying the track and providing access to permanent way materials available in Iraq, as well as providing existing project designs, transporting material to the worksites, and assembling track and turnouts.

Flash-butt welding machines were not available in Iraq, and as no passenger trains will run to the port it was decided to use jointed rails. Signalling will be installed at a later date and when required IRR will replace the existing track to provide a double-track line to the port.

Railway buildings are being repaired and furnished, and field accommodation is provided for construction workers. A new workshop in Baghdad is being built and equipped, and approximately 100 ballast wagons and two Russian tampers are being repaired.

Bechtel is completing earthworks and culvert construction, as well as providing general project management and clearing unexploded ordnance. We are leasing road vehicles and construction equipment for IRR's use, as well as purchasing hand and power tools, fuels, lubricants, food and other consumables. Iraqi subcontractors perform all of Bechtel's construction work, and as far as possible all project materials, equipment and supplies are purchased within Iraq.


The difficult political and security situation in Iraq is well-documented, and it requires a high degree of resourcefulness, patience and ingenuity.

Ongoing theft and sabotage is a major problem throughout the network. Saboteurs routinely derail and attack trains, and this has adversely impacted on the project schedule. IRR is making strides to manage these problems by hiring local security firms throughout the country.

During the Saddam era most construction contractors not linked to the regime were relatively small and undercapitalised enterprises. Because of Bechtel's overall goal of helping Iraqi contractors improve their capability and expand their businesses, the rail work was awarded to four separate subcontractors: one in Baghdad, one in Al Najaf and two at the project site. Identifying and selecting qualified subcontractors took a considerable amount of time and perseverance, but it has paid off.

The Iraqi subcontractors have not been exposed to modern industry-standard project planning tools and techniques, and our team has worked very closely with them to help develop their project planning and execution skills. While the Iraqi engineers and workers on the project are very talented and experienced, maintaining consistent quality requires very close monitoring.

The capabilities of IRR are being stretched by the lack of locomotives, wagons, construction equipment and labour, and we are working to address this.

IRR's primary focus for the foreseeable future is to correct the deferred maintenance situation, repair or replace damaged and stolen facilities, install a signalling and communications system, construct new track on the old main line from Um Qasr to Rabiya parallel to the existing line, purchase a limited amount of new stock, and implement some institutional modernisation.

IRR also has extensive plans to expand the network, with 200 km of new lines currently under construction, design work completed for a further 1400 km, and 400 km more under study.

  • CAPTION: One of the 50 Chinese locos delivered in 2002 hauls military containers on the Um Qasr - Al Shouaiba line
  • CAPTION: Typical of the damage found across the network is this looted control centre at Bayji yard
  • CAPTION: Construction of a new box culvert to replace a bridge on the Um Qasr - Al Shouiaba line
  • CAPTION: The office building at Al Zubeir has been refurbished
  • CAPTION: A partially-constructed new alignment parallels the route to Um Qasr; the electricity transmission lines have been cut