Tourist train brings puff of hope to Damascus

Damascus (AFP) - The Syrian capital's tiny tourist train is returning puffs of hope to a city encircled by war with short trips to the greener suburbs of Damascus.

The train, whose large yellow wagon and leather seats can hold 100 people, had stopped running since the 2011 outbreak of Syria's conflict.

But it was relaunched on Friday and will be open to the general public starting Saturday.

Train trips to towns in Damascus province, like Zabadani, had been a favourite weekend pastime for the capital's residents before the war.

Since many of these areas are now controlled by anti-regime rebels, the train will carry travellers on short round trips to nearby neighbourhoods under regime control, like Dummar.

For many in Damascus, the train is reminiscent of weekend vacations and picnics in idyllic surrounding villages -- areas now destroyed by fierce clashes and heavy shelling.

"It's the train of my childhood... I want to ride it again to remember those beautiful days," Nour, a high-school student, told AFP.

"This is going to make people happy," said Samir Khoury, a 43-year-old engineer.

For 50 Syrian pounds (0.20 US cents), the fuel-run train with a German engine 0will offer a transportation alternative for residents of the traffic-jammed capital.

"We decided to restart this train to give people hope again and put a smile on people's faces in Damascus," said Zuheir Khalil, one of the officials behind the train's relaunch.

The train leaves its station at Rabwa, near the Umayyad Mosque in the west of the capital, and runs alongside the Barada river before reaching Dumar to the northwest.

The inaugural ride on Friday of the train, regaled with Syrian flags, attracted dozens of people, gathered in front of a giant poster of embattled President Bashar al-Assad.

Throughout Syria, transportation methods -- especially bus routes -- have been cut off by fighting and kidnapping.

Syria's conflict has killed more than 220,000 people, displaced roughly half the population and devastated the country's economy.