Travelling the breadth of Libya is done by animal, vehicle, ship or plane. The completion of a railway network, including an east-west mainline, would revolutionise travel in Libya and even the sense of being Libyan.

Libya has had railways in the past. The Italian colonial regime from 1912 onwards built about 400 kilometers of Italian narrow gauge railway, but its programme was curtailed by Allied victory in North Africa. The consequence was to abandon a Tripoli to Benghazi mainline project so the Italian era left two railway networks focused on the western and eastern regional centres of Tripoli and Benghazi.

As the Italians withdrew, British imperial forces extended the railway from Egypt to Tobruk in support of their war effort. The Libyan part of the extension was removed in 1946 under the American-British condominium of Libya. This entailed taking up 125 km of track: one of Libya’s main exports in the 1940s from its war ravaged economy was the export of scrap from vehicles and facilities left by the North Africa Campaign. A potential linkage to the Egyptian railway network still exists with the Egyptian branch of this British line.

Under King Idris, the railways declined and the last branch ceased operating in 1965. The Qaddafi regime saw little significance in railways until 1998, when it planned a standard gauge network of 3,170 km to link with Tunisia and Egypt, a double track mainline going east-west linking key towns and other lines with links to the port of Sirte, ore mines and the coastal steel town of Misrata. The network was planned to be operating by 2009 and cost somewhere in the region of USD 12 billion.

In reality, work was commenced in 2008 by China Railway Construction Corporation (CRCC) on a section from Sirte. CRCC received contracts to build sections of the planned Libyan network totaling about 1300 km of line.

Russian Railways was commissioned as a secondary main contractor and began building another section from Sirte to Benghazi. Russian Railways envisaged employing 3,500 Libyan and Russian workers requiring an accommodation site for 400 personnel. It imported notable amounts of machinery and kit to tackle the project such as a 100 tonne crane, flat wagons and track laying machinery.

The new network plan required construction of 95 stations, 240 km of access roads, 554 bridges, 1205 culverts and 115 million cubic metres of earthworks. There were even proposals to extend this network to include a trans- Saharan link to Niger. To assist in running the new network General Electric was contracted to supply locomotives and to train Libyan workers for their operation and maintenance. Another manufacturer provided the first of an envisaged fleet of diesel multiple units.

The revolution suspended work on the programme and Qaddafi regime contracts were reviewed by the postrevolutionary government. Ports have received a high priority with the transport minister relocating to the port of Tripoli to give impetus to the overhaul and expansion of its facilities. He intends after that to move to Benghazi, Misrata and then Khoms to do the same. Yet in February 2013 the Libyan transport minister announced the government’s intention to complete the planned 3,170 km national railway network. Both CRCC and Russian Railways are in talks with the Libyan government regarding recommencing work.

These negotiations will be tense. Price is an issue for such a complex project of national scale, especially since damage and theft are likely to have occurred on a considerable scale on the abandoned contractor sites. The Libyan government politically will feel no obligation to continue with contracts signed by the previous regime with parties associated with governments that did not support the revolution.

On the other side of the equation, the railway programme will be a key means of socially and economically linking east and west Libya thereby contributing to increased integration of the national economy and even enhanced national identity. The possible links to Tunisia, Niger and Egypt will assist in growing regional trade. The contracts with CRCC also form part of a large range of high value trade with China. Using contractors with the knowledge of the ground and the practicality of railway construction in Libya may be desirable. With benefits for Libya in constructing all or part of a national railway network in preparation for the Africa Cup of Nations in 2017, the progress on payment claims for work under the previous regime and any new pricing arrangements will need to be addressed soon if the existing contractors are to be used.

An alternative railway scheme tabled by Libyan politicians is to use USD 5 billion given by the Italian Burlesconi government to build the proposed railway network with new contractors. The money was given to the Qaddafi regime as compensation for the suffering inflicted by Italian colonisation. Recently, the railway discussion has also broadened; the Congress has approved a plan to build a metro system in Tripoli.

Whatever the outcome of the reissuing of the Libyan railway construction contracts, the progress made in constructing the Libyan railway network and a Tripoli metro will be bell weather indications of the capabilities of the Libyan government to manage high value, complex projects of national and international economic importance upon which economic growth can be built. A successful completion of such a project would provide inspiration to other governments in the Middle East which wish to modernise their economies and seek the benefits of national and regional integration.