The Toros Express has always been an optimistic name for the train that links Istanbul with Aleppo in Syria. It is hardly a fast train, more a leisurely dawdle. That is when it runs at all. And in the last year or two it has run only irregularly. Another link across the same border, the supposedly twice weekly overnight train between Mersin (Turkey) and Aleppo, was also notoriously unreliable in 2009.
But last Friday a new regular train service was launched across the border between Gaziantep (Turkey) and Aleppo. There are two return services each week (on Fridays and Sundays). This new service is evidently one of the first fruits of the new spirit of cooperation between the two countries. Appropriately enough, the two communities are twin towns. Officials point to the fact that the new daytime link can transport much greater numbers of travellers than the Toros Express. But whether the new link means that the Toros Express and the Mersin-Aleppo overnight train are never to return is still not clear.
The cross-border route between Gaziantep and Aleppo is just over two hundred kilometres long and takes three hours by train. Unsurprisingly, local media made much of the new route, pointing out its historic importance as part of the network that fed the Ottoman Empire's Hejaz Railway. Such comment is of course a shade fanciful – there are no plans to run through trains to Medina. Not now, nor indeed at any time in the foreseeable future.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
UPDATE (20 JANUARY 2010)
Since we published this short note ten days ago, we have received further information from the Turkish Railways, advising of the upcoming launch of another international rail service from Gaziantep. From late February, there will be a weekly train from Gazientep (Turkey) to Mosul (Iraq). This will be the first international rail service crossing into Iraq for some years. Mosul (known in Arabic as Al-Mawsil) is Iraq's second city, located in the north of the country on the Tigris River. There are onward train connections within Iraq from Al-Mawsil to Baghdad. So, for the first time for many years, a Berlin to Baghdad journey by train again becomes possible.
updated by Nicky Gardner