The crown jewel of Iraq's railway

Known as the crown jewel of Iraq's railway network, Baghdad Central Station was designed by British architects and completed in the early 1950s - but it was not until extensive renovation following the US-led invasion in 2003 that the grand structure, with its imposing dome, regained some of its former splendour. 

Ali al-Karkhi, a train driver at the station for nearly 40 years, says: "When I die, I want people to remember how I never faltered in any of my work at the station." The state railway's heyday, when it offered luxury travel to Jerusalem and even as far west as London, has long passed. Now, its overnight journeys run only to Basra, and its large fleet of trains has been reduced to just six, pushing more than 200 train drivers into compulsory redundancy. 

Security is an ongoing issue, with passengers asked to place their bags in a line so a sniffer dog can search for traces of explosives or weapons. Mr Karkhi describes, as if it were yesterday, how his love for the station began when he was four and would watch the trains pass his house in Baghdad. And the sound of a train's horn still draws him to his balcony to watch it enter the station and relive that childhood joy. 

Mr Karkhi's father was from Baghdad, and his mother was of Kurdish-Iranian origin. In 1989, he was selected to drive then President Saddam Hussein's train, but when his mother's heritage was revealed, he was quickly removed from the roster. Following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, when the US-led invasion swept through the country, the Iraqi state collapsed and there was widespread looting of property. 

Mr Karkhi says: "I was there the day they started looting the trains. "I felt like parts of my body were being cut off and taken away. These ransacked trains have been abandoned next to tracks built by the British, which divide an old graveyard. 

"It feels like one side is now a graveyard for people and the other a graveyard for the trains," says Mr Karkhi as he walks towards the grave of one of his colleagues, killed, along with his wife and son, by militants. "Us Iraqis no longer see death as something special, it's like seeing an empty packet of cigarettes on the street, it's something we are used to," he says. "I no longer fear death." 

The BBC with pictures by Hawre khalid
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