BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Like a stitch across a deep wound, the train between Iraq’s two biggest cities reminds people of a more peaceful time before sectarian carnage nearly tore their country apart.
The service between Baghdad and Basra resumed with little fanfare in December after a hiatus of 18 months. Few dared use it at first, but word has spread of a safe and cheap journey, and railway officials are scrambling for funds for more carriages.
“There’s been a great acceptance of the service ... People do not feel anxious. They’re coming with their families,” said Abdul-Ameen Mahmoud, the railway company’s head of passenger transport.
The Iraqi General Railways Company halted the service in 2006 after killings, bombings and kidnappings intensified in the infamous “Triangle of Death”, an area south of the capital through which the line passes.
Built by imperial German and British engineers in the first two decades of the 20th century in a race between Berlin and London to control the region, Iraq’s railways were once a vital link between Europe and the Middle East.
The Baghdad-Basra line passes through a part of Iraq that became a notorious al Qaeda stronghold until U.S. and Iraqi forces poured more troops into it last year.
Attacks overall in Iraq have fallen 60 percent since last June when 30,000 extra U.S. troops became fully deployed and Sunni Arab tribal leaders turned against Sunni Islamist al Qaeda because of its indiscriminate violence.
Aboard the diesel-powered train, passengers settled in for the trip, oblivious to whether fellow travelers were Sunni or Shi’ite.
Women jiggled children on their knees and men chatted as the gleaming carriages pulled away from a spotless Baghdad platform, a picture of cleanliness and order in a country racked by chaos.
“Praise God, praise God for the return of the train. I was a bit afraid at first, but now I call on everyone to use it,” said a man who gave his name only as Mehdi, traveling with his family.
Iraq has 3,300 km (2,000 miles) of railway track stretching across the country. The line reaches to Syria in the west and the railway company said it planned to extend it east to Iran and south to Kuwait.
The Baghdad-Basra journey takes 11 or 12 hours, stopping at about 40 stations.
“When the train goes by, people feel safe and feel that things are going back to how they were,” said Colonel Ali al-Tamimi, the railway company’s head of security.
“The railways are for all of us ... Do you think passengers declare their sect when they get on the train?”
Passenger after passenger praised the comfort of traveling on the train compared with stopping at checkpoints on the road from Baghdad to Basra, a grueling journey of 550 km (340 miles).
“First of all, it’s the cost. And it’s comfortable and safe,” said Um Khaled, surrounded by her children, explaining why she was happy to be making the journey.
Passengers were also thrilled about the government-subsidized price.
At 4,000 dinars ($3.33) for a seat, the trip is almost a quarter of the price of the lowest fare to Basra by public minivan, the more common form of transport. A sleeper ticket costs 10,000 dinars.
The cost of petrol has rocketed to 450 dinars per liter from about 50 dinars before the fall of Saddam Hussein.
“This is not the true ticket price, which does not cover the service cost at all. It’s priced low as a service to the Iraqi people,” Baghdad rail chief Mohammed Hashem said. “They’re tired of going by car and constantly stopping at checkpoints.”
Passengers are searched before boarding the train and the railway company’s guards in blue uniforms patrol the carriages.
Even so, only four carriages are available on the Baghdad-Basra service, compared with six or seven before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Hashem said.
Since then, trains, stations and tracks suffered from sabotage, looting and coalition and Iraqi army security operations, the railway company said.
While services from the capital to Basra have just restarted, the Baghdad railway company has kept many other lines open throughout the violence, with some services resuming as little as two weeks after the overthrow of Saddam five years ago.
The company’s 11,000 employees — a patchwork of Iraq’s ethnic groups including Sunnis, Shi’ites, Kurds and Christians — have braved bombs and violence to keep at least some of the network going during that time, Hashem said.
“Truth be told, we never really stopped the service,” said Hashem. “Even when the situation was at its most dangerous, we kept going. It’s our job.”
Editing by Andrew Dobbie and Sara Ledwith