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Early Problems

The construction of the Hejaz Railway began at Muzeirib, in the south of modern Syria. The first chief engineer was an Italian, Signor Labella, but after the first year he was replaced by a German, Heinrich Meissner.

The first year’s work was beset by problems. The Ottoman Chief of Construction, Mehmet Ali Pasha, had no experience of railways and believed only in maintaining strict military discipline. Wages were paid in arrears, or not at all, and the harsh conditions soon led to a mutiny. Only 15 kilometres of track were laid – in an easterly direction to the nearby town of Deraa. The Sultan considered the rate of progress unacceptable. As a result, Mehmet Pasha was replaced and court-martialled for the ill treatment of the conscript workers. His replacement, Kazim Pasha, quickly improved conditions for the troops and together with Meissner, provided a stable foundation for the construction work to proceed.

Kazim Pasha, Ottoman Chief of Construction of the Hejaz Railway

Kazim Pasha - Chief of Construction

The Workforce

Conscript workers building track on Hejaz Railway construction project

The bulk of the labouring work was carried out by military conscripts

The great majority of the unskilled work was carried out by 6,000 conscripts under military command and directed by 12 Ottoman engineers and 30 graduates from the Royal Engineering School of Constantinople. The Sultan originally intended for the work to be carried out using a solely Ottoman workforce, but the extremely slow progress of the first year forced him to change his plans. He quickly accepted that foreign contractors, engineers and craftsmen would have to be brought in for the more complex areas of construction, such as tunnels, bridges, culverts and stations.

Under the watchful eye of Meissner, as many as 600 foreign artisans, including Italians, French, Austrians, Montenegrins and Greeks, were brought in to undertake sections of work requiring a higher level of experience. In the later stages of of the project, the Engineering College of Istanbul created a special department of the École Technique and Turkish engineers began to replace the Europeans.

Hejaz Railway workers' camp at Muazzam Station (Muadhdham) Pilgrimage Fort in Saudi Arabia

Workers' encampment on the site of Muazzam Station. The pilgrimage fort can be seen in front of the hill in the background

In March 1907, the French explorers Jaussen and Savignac spent a week at a site managed by the Denti brothers, Italian contractors in charge of the building of a large tunnel south of Tabuk. Their description of the workers' encampment illustrates clearly the cosmopolitan nature of the project: 'There were numerous makeshift shops, for the most part run by Greeks, where a wide range of spirits and wine was sold, as much to Muslims as to Christians. We encountered there a native of Nantes, people from different parts of Greece and Italy, Arabs from Hail and AlUla, several Circassians and a large number of peasant farmers from Palestine.'

Hejaz Railway defence post at Tabuk Tunnel in Saudi Arabia

Defensive posts constructed for the security of the workers' encampment were extended during the war years to provide protection for the tunnel itself

Working Conditions

The living and working conditions of the workers were extremely basic. They lived in small tents, constantly being moved forward to keep up with the building of the track. The climate was severe and there was very little variety in the diet.

The harsh conditions and bad diet contributed to high levels of disease. Dysentery was rife owing to the heat, the lack of hygiene and the poor water supply. A lack of fresh fruit and vegetables in the diet led to deficiencies in Vitamin C and a high incidence of scurvy. Even more serious was the threat of typhoid, and particularly outbreaks of cholera, the great killer disease of the age. The situation only improved after 1906, when medical facilities were set up in Ma’an, Tabuk and AlUla.

Map of Ottoman Empire Arab territory on the Hejaz Railway

Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire - 1900

On their journey from Jerusalem to AlUla in 1907, Jaussen and Savignac saw a small gang of construction workers making their way slowly across the desert to a new work site. Their account gives a clear picture of the conditions in which the labourers lived. 'We pass by a boulouk, or a company of soldiers, heading southwards. They have finished the task assigned to them and are now on the move, to undertake new earth-levelling works. The basic soldiers are on foot, guns on shoulders, attired in all manner of garments. One of them drives a small herd of sheep in front of him. Several camels walk at a nonchalant pace, loaded up with tents, picks, shovels and a great quantity of wheelbarrows, not to mention sacks of flour and barrels of water. There are even some cages with chickens, used to create the officers' own little farmyard. The other day, we saw the encampment they had just abandoned. Three or four shacks, ringed by circles of stones, from which the metal roofs had been ripped off to be transported elsewhere, and a few tombs, were all that remained.

Hejaz Railway workers' camp at Hegra Station (Medain Saleh) in Saudi Arabia

Stores piled up around a workers’ camp at Medain Saleh 


Local stone for the building of stations, bridges, tunnels and culverts was readily available along the route of the railway. The colour varied according to the type of rock available. The most striking contrast in appearance was the black basalt stone used for stations in the area north of Medina, with the red tinged sandstone common around Mudarraj and the bright yellow sandstone employed between Towaira and Bir Jadeed Stations. Ballast for use in the construction of the permanent way was also readily available from areas of volcanic rubble.

Quarries were established in the rocky hills running alongside the line and the conscript labouring force undertook the backbreaking work of excavating the stone and cutting it into the required shapes and sizes for use in the construction. Stone that split or was unsuitable was discarded before it was transported to the line. A small sandstone quarry was recently discovered in the AlUla region, in the slopes overlooking the line between the stations of Mabrak al Naga and Abu Taqa.

Hejaz Railway bridge at Mudarraj ( Madahrij ) in Saudi Arabia

The reddish sandstone of a bridge north of Mudarraj Station reflecting the colour of the surrounding hills 

Khashm Sana'a Station on Hejaz Railway piles of ballast

Piles of ballast heaped up around Khashm Sana'a Station 

Hejaz Railway stone quarry AlUla Saudi Arabia

A small quarry for sandstone used in the building of the line

Hejaz Railway stone quarry AlUla Saudi Arabia

Broken slabs were discarded before transportation to the railway

Hejaz Railway stone quarry AlUla Saudi Arabia

Large sandstone blocks could be hewn smoothly from the rock face

Bir al Jadeed Station on the Hejaz Railway in Saudi Arabia

Bir Jadeed Station was constructed using an attractive local yellow sandstone block 

At the beginning of the construction project, the Sultan intended to use materials exclusively provided by Ottoman factories. However, aside from some expensively produced rails, a few first-class carriages and a mosque car, it was clear that local manufacturers would be unable to meet the huge demand for the material required. The Central Commission for the railway, based in Constantinople (now Istanbul), was therefore ordered to set up a system of procurement in order that rails and rolling stock could be ordered from foreign suppliers, primarily from Europe.

Hejaz Railway rails GHH and Cockerill AlUla Station at Al Ula in Saudi Arabia

Rails from Cockerill of Belgium and G.H.H. of Germany at AlUla Station

At the beginning of the project, wooden sleepers were more widely employed than metal ones, as they could be supplied from the Ottoman Empire's own extensive forests. However, the extreme temperatures caused the wood to shrink and split, and  the rails would become loose. This resulted in carriages rolling as they passed over the unstable track. Southwards from Zerqa therefore, steel sleepers were preferred, supplied primarily by Cockerill and the American Steel Trust. Fourteen sleepers were used for each set of rails.

Hejaz Railway mosque car Ottoman Empire

Mosque car with a collapsible minaret, produced by the Constantinople Naval Arsenal

Rails were provided by a number of foreign manufacturers, including Cockerill of Belgium, Donawitz of Austria, the American Steel Trust (stamped Maryland-USA) and Angleur of Belgium. In the later stages of the construction project, they were also supplied by a Belgian firm operating in Russia (stamped Providence-Russe 1906), Dowlais of Wales and, particularly in the southern sections, by the German company Gute-Hoffnung-Hutte (stamped G.H.H.). The single-headed steel rails measured between 27 and 30 feet in length and weighed from 30 to 38 lbs per yard.

Hejaz Railway sketch of rail attachments

Sketch of rail attachments made by Lt. Col. F. Maunsell in 1905

Hejaz Railway locomotive with sleepers for Ottoman construction project  in Jordan

Wooden sleepers being delivered to the construction site at the railhead

The original workhorse of the railway for the early years of the construction project was the 0-6-0T. Two were acquired from St. Leonard (Belgium), three from La Meuse (Belgium), eight from Hohenzollern (Germany) and twelve from Krauss (Germany). As the track advanced, 2-6-0s and 2-8-0s became the preferred choice. Fourteen 2-6-0s, manufactured in 1906 and 1907 were obtained from Germany - seven each from Hartmann and Jung. Twelve 1907 Jung 2-8-0s and seven 1907 Hartmann 2-8-0s were also acquired, with 15 more of the Hartmanns being made available between 1910 and 1911.

Krauss locomotive on Hejaz Railway at Hedia Station in Saudi Arabia

The original workhorse of the railway - a German-built Krauss 0-6-0T on the track at Hedia Station in the 1980s

During the first years of the railway, the passenger carriages were supplied by Baume et Marpent of Haine St. Pierre, Belgium. In 1904 the railway's stock comprised one sleeper saloon, 15 mixed first- and second-class coaches and 40 third-class coaches. The goods wagon stock amounted to 100 vans and 145 low-sided wagons, supplied by the German companies Suddeutsche Wagon Fabrik-Kelsterbach of Frankfurt-am-Main and Gothaer Wagon Fabrik Fritz Bothmann & Gluck. The low-sided wagons were used to transport water in metal tanks to stations without a natural supply. 

Hejaz Railway Baume et Marpent wagon carriage at AlUla in Saudi Arabia

Belgian-made Baume et Marpent wagon (No. 1280) at AlUla Station

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