Revival of Lebanon’s railroad: Ziad Nasr keen on regaining respect for establishment, says waiting for investment to revive coastal track

Sat 29 Sep 2018 at 12:42 Reports and Hot Files

Written by Rana Serhan
Translated by Line Chokor

It may not be known to many Lebanese citizens that the Directorate of Railways, belonging to the Railway and Public Transportation Authority of Lebanon, is vacant of employees. Having once over one thousand employees before the Lebanese civil war, the directorate is now employing 9 category IV officers. Due to the lack of labor force reaching the Railway and Public Transportation Authority, said officers have been transferred to work there.

The President and General Manager of the State Railway Authority, Ziad Nasr, appointed on 10/3/2013 as a full-time president for the board of the aforementioned authority, didn't benefit from the first class salary scale fixed in the new number 1 schedule appendix to law 46/2017. The General Manager finally broke his silence, saying that they've inherited a heavy burden caused by the ongoing neglect that has reached this facility.

"Burdens and responsibilities are numerous, more so now that the directorate is suffering from extreme vacancy. This suggests that the talks about wasting state funds by paying employees’ salaries are both untrue and unrealistic. There are neither imaginary salaries nor credits being paid for this facility, as should be done to rehabilitate it," he claimed.

"I am saddened to hear that the concerned parties have gotten the wrong idea of not allocating sufficient credits for this facility to help manage routine affairs on one hand, while maintaining the establishment’s properties on the other hand. This wrong perception could lead to a loss of rights, as well as encourage encroachers. We, as a management, are taking procedures that require a skilled staff that does not exist, and unavailable financial credits to protect, clean and maintain the facility's properties and ward off trespassers, in order to preserve it. Today, after we've started to take serious measures to stop trespassing properties, we're demanding to fill the extreme vacancy, reinforce the establishment’s financial capabilities, and not toy with its fate. The situation requires attention, and allotted credits so the facility could stand on its feet again, despite the heavy burdens on its shoulders. We've collaborated with many endorsers to fix the vacancy problem; a problem that now requires swift solutions, mainly providing skilled staff members to help facilitate affairs, and keep up with specialists during plan preparation and implementation in order to attain sustainable results. We, as an establishment, have succeeded in building relations with many countries interested in hosting and training a team of employees from the facility. How can we manage that when we don't have any employees?" Nasr wondered.

"I don't want to outbid anyone, because I'm aware of the urgent priorities of the country. Ultimately, the cabinet is the deciding force about its priorities agenda, especially when the country is drowning in issues of electricity, water, waste, etc. There are many faults in the public facilities, but financial credits are necessary for their revival and activation. However, it's my responsibility to prioritize my establishment and its primary needs, while it's up to the cabinet to decide the priorities considering the financial constraints, especially when it comes to railway projects that demand hefty investments. We are a country enduring a financial crisis, but our plans are simple and ready to launch as soon as credits can be provided," the GM announced.

He added that he knew that the Lebanese government was well aware of the facility's importance, and that it would grant the facility the attention and support it needed during the next step. It entails translating the efforts exerted by the establishment in collaboration with the Minister of Public Works and Transport, especially after the preparation of the abundant projects that form sustainable solutions for public transport.
“These projects have captured the attention and the support of many parliamentary blocs, most notably the Democratic Gathering bloc that has recently visited the facility to closely inspect the situation, as well as the prepared projects. The bloc has expressed full support for the efforts made, and it was ready to endeavor to restore this institution's name, in collaboration with many other blocs,” he explained.

Three years ago, Nasr had started to fulfill the role of managing the establishment and monitoring the infringements occurring because of certain parties' neglect. "Since the municipalities charged of regulating infringements are basically councils elected by people who infringe and trespass the establishment's properties, said infringements are often ignored for electoral and political reasons. ‘This person didn't remove his infringement, why should I?' is often the excuse. All of this is blatant disobedience of the law," Nasr clarified.

Nasr went on to allude to the role of local authorities and public forces in protecting government properties by saying, "According to the law, the branches of public forces are municipalities in different regions, gendarmeries entrusted to protecting public properties from infringements. Municipalities have the power to stop whoever is infringing, as well as call for support whenever the need arises. For example, stopping construction over buildings without any permit is a felony. I, personally, have stepped forward and presented many dossiers to all mayors across Lebanon and have demanded intervention, as well as given direct instructions to municipalities in order to urge them to fulfill their roles."

Commenting on railway infringements in Lebanon, Nasr said, "Infringements increase and lessen according to the importance of investments in regions and estates over the Lebanese coast. For example, from Beirut to the north of Lebanon, infringements over railways are more common than in the internal regions. Saying that the infringements stand in the way of implementing railway projects is wrong, and the proof is our ongoing efforts and the initiative to remove infringements from many sites, with limited capabilities. We reiterate that our limited capabilities are due to the lack of specialists, engineers and topographs."

"Considering that the wanted credit for the directorate is a waste or unnecessary is not true. Whoever is accusing us of this is certainly helping in dismissing the rights of the establishment. Unfortunately, some of the people we demand credit from, such as the Directorate of Supervision in the Ministry of Finance, have the wrong perception when approaching this subject. I am certainly not talking about the Minister of Finance. The approach is arguing about the benefit of said credits without taking into consideration the exhaustive efforts made by the establishment to stop infringements, as well as the necessity to reveal hidden railway properties, and the dire need to rehabilitate and maintain its institutions. Said institutions must be benefitted from and managed successfully, in spite of the threats received by the establishment and its employees. This hints at the enormity of the works that need to be done, and everyone needs to realize it considering its national profit. Any mere owner needs money to protect, maintain and run his properties; let alone the owner of a business with many establishments and properties all over the country — now abandoned because of the neglect and deterioration on all levels," Nasr confirmed.

"We insist on making the establishments and properties more valuable than before, while also protecting them and shedding light on them. The previous missions require financial support from the government. While waiting for the aforementioned support, we are collaborating with active municipalities who are dedicated to accomplishing good deeds, in order to clean the railway transportation lines. This collaboration ensures the required obligations among public institutions and municipalities to accomplish common interests. Our mission has succeeded in many areas, and where we have failed, we'll apply for serious procedures at the required, competent courts such as the financial prosecution. I'd also like to thank the financial prosecutor for the efforts he's making to pursue our complaints about infringements. Investing and maintaining railway properties are both legally assigned to this public establishment. Therefore, no one can use or own it without prior knowledge about the said establishment. This highlights the importance of this particular branch that is suffering from vacancies on one hand. On the other hand, many burdens and responsibilities lie on the shoulders of the general manager, especially in the absence of a technical team helping him implement projects’” he continued.

About the role of the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, Nasr said, "To be fair, the current minister, Youssef Fenianos, is completely supportive of our steps and extremely understanding of the burdens on our shoulders. We had presented urgent recruitment applications that gained approval by the Civil Service Council, and got adopted by the Minister who presented them to the Council of Ministers two years prior. We are often surprised by those who undermine the importance of the establishment and the massive efforts to overcome obstacles.”

Nasr announced that he was working on ensuring self-imports through selling tickets to passengers in the joint transportation section, affiliated with the establishment, as well as through collecting working lines, “despite its limitations, due to the lack of machineries and working hands.”

"We are taking the necessary legal measures to force the infringers to remove their irregularities and fix the damage they've caused. With the help of the Financial Prosecution, we were able to remove many violations, as well as landfills in the way of railways. Through this initiative, we hope to accomplish the following:

- Preserve the establishment's rights, properties, and bring out the railways' landmark.

- Stop infringements, especially now that the parties assigned to stop them claim that the landmark isn't clear.

- Give a clear signal of the possibility of reviving railway projects. The establishment, along with its humble capabilities, is working on preventing infringements in many sites and does not hesitate to refer the infringers to the required and competent court. Quitting or succumbing to the current reality is not allowed, neither is claiming that all these infringements are preventing the implementation of railway projects,” Nasr explained.

"While waiting for the required investment to revive the coastal track, there is a mini project that we hope to implement with the help of a certain party that has shown willingness to help implement it," Nasr added. In the north, there are endeavors to send a specialized team to reveal a part of the railway in order to study a possibility of propelling a small compartment for 10 kilometers. This would reveal the efforts made by the establishment to revive the sector. If, through personal efforts, we were able to propel a small compartment, then with help and support from the government, along with money, we could stop infringements and revive the facility," Nasr proclaimed.

“The establishment has already conducted a full study for the entire track line, through technical support from the European Union, intending to bring the railway back to life on the coast from Beirut to Tripoli. The mentioned studies also include details for another railway project linking Tripoli to the Lebanese-Syrian borders. For these projects to be implemented, a financial investment is a must; investment is either provided by the treasury or through donations and loans,” he clarified.

“This track is a priority considering the fact that it links Beirut port to Tripoli port, as well as the city’s economic zone, the Rene Mouawad Air Base, and the Lebanese-Syrian borders. Reanimating this particular track is in line with the efforts made to activate Tripoli’s port, and leads to resolving the traffic crisis blocking Beirut’s north entrance. The results are tangible, that is why this track is prioritized. That is not to mention that we are not paying attention to the remaining tracks in the south and in the Bekaa. We’ve already presented a complete vision to the Council of Ministers which has approved to task the Ministry of Public Affairs and Transportation to draft a railway outline that covers all the Lebanese soil,” Nasr responded to a question about the choice to reanimate only the Beirut-Tripoli track.

“We must start implementing projects that benefit the Lebanese citizens and fulfill their primary needs. The public transport sector has become a burden that affects the citizens and the treasury alike. This burden is an accumulation of the traffic crisis, troubles of commuting, car accidents, increasing death toll, towering traffic medical bill, and migration from villages to cities. That’s why serious investment in the public transport sector must begin, especially since it contributes in activating the economic cycle and in restricting the negative effects on the economic, social, ecologic and touristic levels,” the President of the State Railway Authority confirmed.

“This sector contributes to national fusion, considering it provides many opportunities for people from different regions to communicate. The current chaos in the public transportation sector has led to randomness and has reinforced the concept of sectarianism and regionalism. It’s time to take the lead and develop a complete system for transportation that covers all the Lebanese regions, and one that includes passenger stations. This way, we’ll broaden the scope of mixing and communicating between the citizens that suffer with needs and demands. Reviving the railways will also create new work opportunities for the Lebanese youth of all classes and educational backgrounds.”

Nasr then alluded to the public bidding done by the establishment to buy the fuel needed for public buses. That made way for a lot of judgment due to the general ignorance about the nature of this bid. However, due to the mentioned bid, the establishment was able to save 58% of the total of the distribution company’s share, entrepreneurs’ commission, and the cost of transport. “I would prefer if all establishments who hire would follow in my footsteps in order to save public money,” Nasr implored.

“The salary scale hasn’t been applied in the establishment because there are no employees in the sector, considering they were let go many years prior. Unfortunately, they don’t benefit from any financial, health, and social services from the establishment.
It is worth noting that there is a prejudice against the establishment, denying its employees of their right to the salary scale under the 46/2017 law, just like other employees in the public sector. Our few employees have been abiding by their new work schedules adopted by the Lebanese government, yet they haven’t enjoyed any bonuses,” Nasr concluded.

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