BAGHDAD — Don't be put off by the sign, which reads "Cent al B ghd d Stat on."
And don't worry about the gun-toting men who emerge from the dark and board the train as it sits in predawn silence at the huge, domed station that has seen grander days.
They're there to protect passengers riding Baghdad's first commuter train, an experiment in urban renewal in a city as broken as the rusted station sign but struggling to pull itself together.
Since the commuter train service began about a month ago, ridership has been spotty. Few people seem to know it exists. After all, who would imagine such a thing in Baghdad, where going from one end of town to another was, not that long ago, an invitation to be killed?
But the Ministry of Transportation wanted to relieve Iraqis of the chaos of Baghdad's streets, where checkpoints, speeding convoys and almost daily bombings cause massive traffic tie-ups. Thus was born the Baghdad Metro, as the men who gather for each day's 5:30 a.m. departure have dubbed the service.
"If this succeeds, I think they'll open more lines inside Baghdad," says Thafir Salim, the engineer on the route, which leaves the main station and weaves about 15 miles through west and south Baghdad on just two round-trip journeys a day: one in the morning and one in the afternoon.
Like most employees of the state-run Iraqi Republic Railways Co., Salim found himself with little to do after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Train travel, like much of life here, ground to a halt as violence took over the country. Bombs were planted on tracks. Conductors were yanked out of their engines and beheaded. Riders were scared off.
Last year, passenger service between Baghdad and Basra, a 13-hour trip south, resumed. Other than that, the Baghdad Metro is the only regular train service, and the trip offers a close-up view of the upended lives of Iraqis since the war.
Squatter communities filled with people displaced by sectarian violence bump up against the tracks. Women tend bean fields planted haphazardly in the shadow of a giant refinery belching black smoke. Crossing gates and guards are nonexistent, continually putting the train on a potential collision course with cars and military convoys. Cows and sheep meander dangerously close to the tracks, as do children, who sometimes throw rocks at the passing green cars.
Then there are the armed guards, two per trip, each carrying a pistol and an AK-47, who fire into the air to chase off stone-throwers or any other threat they perceive.
"We're out of bullets by the end of each trip," jokes one, Ali Badri.
At 5:25, Badri and his colleague, Aqueel Moragab, arrive at the central station to start their day. The Big Dipper and Orion are hanging in the sky as the two walk beneath the station sign, down the platform and into the train for the first leg of the morning trip: a one-hour ride to the southern suburb of Dora.
The two deep-green passenger cars date to 1983 and are showing their age. The green vinyl seats are comfortable but worn, and by afternoon they are covered in thick layers of dust blown in from the sliding windows. Some of the window panes are cracked.
On this morning, like every morning in a city where commuter traffic is pretty much one-way, no passengers will get on until Dora, where people heading to central Baghdad for the return journey climb on. That leaves Badri, Moragab and the rest of the crew to enjoy their morning ritual in the engineer's car: a teapot is set on a hot plate; bread, teacups, sugar, cheese and jam appear.
As Salim eases the train slowly out of the Baghdad station, blaring the horn, Badri gets to work fixing breakfast for everyone. Across the Tigris River, the dim lights of the Medical City hospital complex glow in the dark. Branches from trees growing near the track brush the engine car. Stray cats and dogs scatter.
The men are joined up front by Salim Jassem, the shift director who keeps the train and its staff running on time.
"I'm very committed to my schedule," says Jassem, who explains the importance of timeliness: This train shares a track with the train running between Baghdad and Basra. That train is barreling toward central Baghdad as the commuter train is leaving and arrives about an hour after Salim leaves the station. Staying on schedule helps prevent collisions.
"We're coming now! Clear the way for me!" Salim yells into his radio to alert employees at the first station out of central Baghdad -- Mansour -- of his approach. As he nears the station, a shaggy black dog appears on the track, barking furiously at the oncoming engine. At the last minute, the dog darts to the side.
Salim and the others laugh. They know the dog. He's there every time.
On the left side of the track, a man faces the oncoming train, his left arm held high. One of the guards leans out the door and snatches a slip of paper from him. It's an affidavit stating that the train is running on time.