NO-ONE should be surprised that Iraqi Republic Railways is ekeing out the most precarious existence. Official information is hard to come by, but an intrepid traveller recently reported to the Berliner Kurier that all is far from well.

The passenger service is apparently down to three trains a day between Baghdad and Basra, and just one between the capital and Mosul.

The report suggests that only 20 of the 382-strong loco fleet are serviceable, with many of the rest cannibalised for spares. The condition of rolling stock is deplorable, with windows in passenger coaches a rarity.

All signalling on the Baghdad - Basra main line is reported to be defunct, with trains being run on telephone orders. Speed restrictions abound, so that the 541 km trip now takes anything up to 16h. Train crew are not paid regular wages, just for each trip completed. The legacy of the Gulf War was everywhere to be seen.

Some day Iraq will presumably return to the international community, at which point there will be huge opportunities to help rebuild the shattered network.