Monday, 1 February 2021

This Was Gaddafi’s Personal Italian High-Speed Train


By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
 
An article covering trains on Oryx Blog? Yes, you're not mistaken. We know what you are thinking: Where are the tanks, aircraft or ships? But actually, trains are kind of interesting or some of them at least. Take Japan's Chūō Shinkansen for example, which holds the train world speed record of 603 km/h. Or the Krajina Express, an improvised armoured train used by the Krajina Serb army during the 1990s that looked like a veritable battle fortress. Still not convinced? Then how about Gaddafi's personal Italian high-speed train that's technically still owned by Denmark?

Now that we've got you all aboard (pun intended), let us explore the strange tale of Libya's IC4 high-speed VIP train. The story of how the diesel multiple unit (DMU) trainset ended up in Libya is highly remarkable; it essentially being a sly ploy by then Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi to bribe Gaddafi into selecting Italian firms for Libya's railway projects, which could earn Italy billions if awarded to them. There was just one small problem however: the trainset given to Gaddafi was never owned by Italy.
 
The trainset was actually part of a Danish order of 83 trains for the Danske Statsbaner (DSB), Denmark's national railway operator, from the Italian firm AnsaldoBreda (nowadays known as Hitachi Rail Italy). Originally slated to enter service in 2003, the first IC4 train only began passenger service in late 2007 before operations were halted again several months later owing to several issues with the train. That was perhaps indicative of what was to come, and the build-up of delays and technical issues eventually saw AnsaldoBreda having to refund half the original value of the DKK 5,3 billion (roughly €710 million) contract.

Likely agitated by its loss-making trains, AnsaldoBreda quietly took one of the IC4s still on the production line and converted it to a luxurious VIP train before presenting it to Gaddafi as a present on the 40th anniversary of Gaddafi's rise to power in 2009. Berlusconi had visited Libya days prior to the 40th anniversary of the coup an event shunned by other Western leaders. In addition to showing Gaddafi around his new shiny train, Berlusconi pledged 3.5 billion euros in investments as reparation for Italy's colonisation of Libya (which lasted from 1911 to 1943). [1]
 

Reportedly, it took the Danish until 2013 to figure out that one of their trains was not stranded somewhere in Italy, but rather given to Gaddafi and now collecting dust on an abandoned track just outside of Tripoli. [2] It is unlikely that any tears were shed in Copenhagen as a result of the discovery however, and as recently as July 2020, DSB offered 11 of the IC4s for sale in anticipation of phasing out the entire fleet of trains from 2024 and onwards.
 
The irony hardly stops here, as a train is only as good as the tracks it is moving on. This too proved a problem for AnsaldoBreda: there weren't any in Tripoli. In fact, there isn't a single operational railway in the entirety of Libya. In order to at least enable the train to move, three kilometres of double-track railway was laid on which the 'Gaddafi Express' could drive up and down until the proposed railway line between Tripoli and Tunisia was finished. Had this line been completed before the 2011 revolution, Gaddafi might very well have purchased more trains from AnsaldoBreda.

Considering AnsaldoBreda's proven track record in building poor quality trains, Libya actually dodged a bullet with the failure of this plan. The build quality of the IC4s left much to desire – making the trains highly prone to malfunction in Danish service. Similar problems plagued the V250 (another type of Italian high-speed train produced for the Netherlands) and other rail projects by AnsaldoBreda, making it apparent that the issues are inherent to their designs.
 

Compared to contemporary VIP trains used by heads of state all around the world, the Gaddafi Express stands out for its modern design and a top speed of 200 km/h. As most heads of state nowadays almost exclusively rely on aircraft and helicopters to cross any distance that's too inconvenient to traverse by car, the concept of a dedicated VIP train is slowly becoming a relic of the past. Only Japan operates a similar train to that of the IC4 for its emperor, which has to make do with a top speed of only 130 km/h.
 
Arguably the best known private trains still in active use are those of North Korea's Kim family, which focus on protection rather than on style and high speed. Although all members of the Kim dynasty made extensive use of trains, Kim Jong Il solely relied on them to bring him to faraway places after reportedly developing a fear of flying as the result of a helicopter accident in 1976. Owing to safety concerns, old rolling stock and also due to the sorry state of North Korea's railroads, which in some sections only allow speeds of less than 40 km/h, these trains usually move at the snail's pace of only 60 km/h.
 

At least a part of Gadaffi's IC4's original Danish interior was removed to make way for a VIP lounge for him and his entourage. This was likely specifically installed for the venue between Gaddafi and Berlusconi; had the train ever seen regular service in this configuration, every piece of furniture not bolted to the floor would have shifted throughout the cabin after reaching high speeds or when the train would need to brake.
 
 
In a different section of the Gaddafi Express, sofas were placed longitudinally facing each other. Though seemingly comfortable, this was in fact a feature of the original Danish interior design as well, using small folding seats rather than luxurious sofas. Something the Danish trains did lack however was a conference room, vital for those important strategy discussions while underway to the other end of the three kilometer track outside Tripoli.


The interior of the rest of the train otherwise remains unchanged from that of the original design, which starkly contrasts with the bright colours on the exterior of the IC4 in Libya.

 
The haphazardness with which AnsaldoBreda converted and shipped off the IC4 to Libya is reflected by the fact that the original DSB operator's plaque and all of the Danish stickering was left in place. Had Gaddafi ever made active use of the train, he might have inquired about these Danish markings plastered all over the train. On the other hand, already relying on his aides to help him read a passport, he might simply never have noticed.
 

 
In anticipation of the construction of the railway line to the border with Tunisia, some 30 kilometres of ground in Tripoli's suburbs had already been cleared in 2003, although it would take another six years before construction by China Railway Construction finally started. The entire project was scheduled to take 54 months, but the 2011 revolution quickly brought an end to any construction, and with it Gaddafi's chance to ever actually use his train. [3] 
 
Still, some progress on the line had already been made, most notably near what was destined to become Tripoli central station, where a more than 1 kilometre long underground railway tunnel was constructed. This makes Libya the sole country in the world to have both a high-speed train and an underground railway tunnel, but no actual rail transport. The images below show the entire length of the 3 kilometres long track, the station which is still left in an unfinished state and a part of the underground tunnel (which is now mostly covered by sand).
 
 
Although arguably not the most beautiful train ever designed, its sleek lines can be appreciated in the images below. The text reads: قطار الحياة - 'The Train of Life' and  الجماهيرية الليبية الشعبية الاشتراكية العظمى - 'Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya'.
 
 
A Danish comedian visited the train in March 2013, handing over a poster of Queen Margrethe II of Denmark ''as a gift of the Danish people'' to a Libyan official, which in essence marked the official handing over of the train to Libya. Over the next few years, both weather and vandalism would take their toll on the exterior and interior of the train, but also the railroad tracks themselves, large sections of which have been removed for the steel they contain.
 
 
Gaddafi likely suffered little over his inability to make proper use of his fancy train, given that he could already make use of a vast fleet of VIP aircraft, including a private A340 that even came with its own jacuzzi. Had sufficient track ultimately been laid to allow basic utilisation of the train, the same issues identified by the Danish might have come to plague its operators. But before that, the mere fact that just a single train set had been given, and that there was as of yet no experience in operating these trains in Libya would likely have posed problems of their own. In restrospect, the entire ordeal therefore represented little more than a giant bribe to have Gaddafi buy Italian trains and equipment for its upcoming railways.
 
Since the 2011 revolution, Libya has attempted to restart its railway projects on several occassions. Although none of those attempts has as of yet been successful, when they will this train is unlikely to be part of them. Today, the vehicle perhaps best serves as an icon of a past time in which no tale was too crazy, and considerations of practicality were superseded by lavishness and pipe dreams. Renewed investment of a more realistic nature may well be established with the help from Turkey, the influence of which is rapidly growing in Libya. For now, Gaddafi's train, and with a country's aspirations in railfare, have reached their final station.


 
 
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