Tonnage carried by the Aqaba Railway is expected to triple by 2002 after a Raytheon-led consortium takes a 25 year lease

AUGUST 18 saw the signing of an agreement under which management and operation of the 292 km Aqaba Railway in Jordan will pass to a consortium that includes Wisconsin Central Transportation Corp. Financial close of a package to underpin US$130m of capital investment in two new branch lines and upgrading of existing track and rolling stock is expected by the end of 1999. In addition, the government will receive a single payment of 20m dinars (US$28m) for the lease.

The line will be leased for 25 years under a build-operate-transfer deal that sees WCTC’s diverse railway operations extended to six countries spanning four continents. The company is currently negotiating the takeover of freight operations from Polish State Railways.

US partners WCTC and Raytheon Infrastructure, a subsidiary of Raytheon Engineering & Contractors, will hold at least 51% of equity in the joint venture. Other partners are Consolidated Contractors (based in Athens), Mitsubishi Corp and Kawar Group (based in Amman). Jordan Phosphate Mines has an option to own 25% of the business.

The Aqaba Railway consists of a 170 km section of the 1050mm gauge Hedjaz Railway between El Abiad and Batn El Ghul, plus a 113 km line to the Red Sea port of Aqaba which was opened in 1975. The principal traffic is phosphates originating at El Abiad and El Hassa mines, each of which is served by a 4 km branch line, and exported through Aqaba.

The Hedjaz Railway opened in 1908 between Damascus and Medina in Saudi Arabia, but the track south of Batn el Ghul has been disused since the first world war and was mostly dismantled in the 1970s. The section from El Abiad to the Jordanian capital Amman is intact but carries no traffic. Passenger and freight services between Amman and Damascus were relaunched in July 1999, thanks to improved relations between Jordan and Syria.

An important part of the BOT deal is a commitment by the joint venture to construct a 22 km branch to the Shidiya phosphate mine, to the east of Bir Chedieh. Although there is a loading facility for this mine on the main line, most of the output and all incoming supplies in fact move by road to and from Aqaba.

Currently, the two northern mines produce around 3 million tonnes a year, but their output is set to decline. Shidiya is a larger operation, and the railway is expected to be carrying 10 million tonnes a year by 2002.

WCTC Vice-President for Corporate Planning Earl Currie, who was involved in the contract negotiations, says that ’a major objective for the new company is to apply the operating principles in Jordan which have earned Wisconsin Central its international reputation for service delivery. Achieving this objective will enable us to deliver the projected increase in traffic volume efficiently and reliably.’

A second new branch, 16 km long, will be constructed to serve a new industrial and port complex known as Wadi II, located south of the original Aqaba port. This will be used to take phosphates and phosphoric acid (from a plant at Shidiya) directly to a new fertiliser plant, but it would also allow imported materials to be moved directly to Shidiya by rail.

Following financial close in a few weeks, and assuming that a US$50m long term loan from the US Overseas Private Investment Corp is available, work will start on the line to Shidiya early in 2000. The branch in Aqaba will follow as a second phase.

Maintenance and repairs

ARC has around 300 wagons, mostly hoppers to carry phosphates, and 21 diesel locomotives supplied by US General Electric. An early priority for the joint venture is to upgrade both wagons and motive power in order to improve the reliability of service provided to the mines. Wagon and locomotive servicing and maintenance is carried out mainly at Ma’an, where the ARC headquarters are located, but locos are also serviced at Aqaba.

This is not a heavy haul operation. Thanks to the dry climate, there has been hardly any corrosion damage to the rails and sleepers since the line was laid almost 100 years ago, and with minimal traffic passing up to the 1970s, the original 1908 track remains in use today. Some sections require lining and levelling, but otherwise most track is still able to carry the 16 tonne axleload currently applying.

On the section built in the 1970s the track condition is described by WCTC as ’fair to good’. The ruling gradient against loaded trains is 2·7%, with curves down to 125m radius, and some rail on these curves will have to be replaced due to severe corrugation. It is also the intention to field-weld a proportion of bolted joints.

As this is desert country, sand is blown on to the track in places. Methods of preventing this are being considered.

Once the concession is up and running successfully, the joint venture will examine opportunities to carry general freight between Aqaba and Amman. At present, a large amount of freight - much of it in containers - is carried more than 300 km on the highway between the capital and Jordan’s only port.

North of Menzil, just beyond El Abiad, control of the line passes to the Hedjaz Jordan Railway. It would therefore be necessary to negotiate a new concession agreement for management and operation of the 130 km from Menzil to Aqaba.