The line that time forgot

By GIL STERN STERN SHEFLER
April 9, 2010 23:21

Haifa locals launch a campaign to raise the profile of their "ghost train" subway.




Musicians on the Carmelit train in Haifa

Carmelit 311. (photo credit: Lior Rosenbaum)

Take a visit to the Carmelit, Israel’s only urban railway, and you'll discover a pleasant and efficient system, rare in these parts of the world. Trains run frequently up and down the steep gradient of the track buried deep beneath Mount Carmel, eschewing the chronically congested streets above. Stations are brightly lit and immaculately clean, and staff are always on hand to help.

There’s only one thing missing in this otherwise picture-perfect vision of urban life: people.

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When prime minister David Ben-Gurion unveiled the line in 1959, amid much fanfare, it was lauded as a technological marvel guaranteed to usher in a new age of prosperity to this industrial port city. But enthusiasm quickly dissipated. Haifa entered a long and steady economic decline, and for decades the Carmelit has struggled to attract commuters. Currently, the line’s two trams operate at far below capacity level, carrying no more than a handful of passengers – even during rush hour – and giving the line the semblance of a ghost train. 

Now a new campaign aims to change that. A local magazine has partnered with businessmen and residents in a bid to increase ridership on the line that time forgot.

“We’ve got a treasure buried underneath our feet and we hardly use it,” said Ira Shefer, chief editor of Achbar Ha’ir Haifa, the local weekly magazine behind the initiative. “If it takes half an hour to get from the Lower City to the Carmel by bus, then with the Carmelit it takes only seven minutes. And it’s green, too.”

Shai Cohen, a 26-year-old waitress, is a Carmelit aficionado and one of relatively few commuters who use the line on a daily basis.

“I think it’s awesome,” she said as she waited for the train to arrive at Massada Station. “It really helps me out because I work at Carmel and live in Hadar. When I first started using the line, I felt like I was abroad. I wish more people would use it.”

Some Carmelit employees share her enthusiasm. Yonatan Samonov, a train operator, looks over a panel full of dials and knobs in a control room buried deep beneath the ground at the line’s Gan Ha’em Station. He speaks with pride of the advantages the Carmelit has to offer.

“There’s no congestion, no traffic lights, no pollution – and it’s never too hot or too cold,” he said. “It’s unique to Haifa. Just look how long it’s taking them to build something like it in Tel Aviv.”

Two weeks ago, on St. Patrick’s Day, Shefer’s magazine asked businesses located along the line to give discounts to patrons who used the Carmelit. The purpose of the initiative was to demonstrate the line as a safe way for partygoers to get home after a night out drinking.

Jacky Razon, the owner of Jack and the Beanstalk, a pub located in Haifa’s Lower City, which is served by the Carmelit, was one of over 20 owners of bars and cafes who joined the initiative.

“We opened early so people would come between the Camelit’s operating hours, but only one couple showed up,” said Razon. “The problem isn’t the Carmelit, it’s the Lower City. Promoting the Carmelit is great, but we need to do a lot more. There just isn’t enough traffic in the Lower City for the Carmelit to succeed.”

Still, Lior Rosenbaum, a staff writer at Achbar Ha’ir, said he was undeterred.

“I saw a few more passengers on the train, so I’d call it a modest success,” he said.

Shefer and Rosenbaum say the St. Patrick’s Day event was the first in a number of initiatives, including a weekly column and Facebook page, which their magazine is planning in order to raise the profile of the Carmelit. They say they don’t expect any radical change, but hope their message has some effect in improving the line’s fortune over time.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” Rosenbaum said.

Contrary to popular belief, the Carmelit is not an underground railway in the mold of, say, New York’s Subway or the Paris Metro. Rather, it is an underground funicular – a sort of cable car on rails. Each of its two engineless trams is tied to a cable wrapped around a giant pulley located at the line’s highest-elevation station, Gan Ha’em. When one of the trams descends the track’s steep gradient, it pulls the other tram up the slope. Additional power is provided by engines located at either end of the line.

Similar funicular railways exist in cities around the world including Pittsburgh; Valparaiso, Chile; Istanbul and Naples, where in 1880 the opening of a now-defunct line to the top of Mount Vesuvius inspired the famous song “Funiculi, Funicula.”

Still, it is hard to imagine the Carmelit ever living up to the expectations its builders had for it. One of its main problems is its length: at only two kilometers, the line is arguably the shortest underground railway line in the world.

Another problem contributing to the line’s woes is its route. When it was built, it connected the three most important parts of the city at the time: the industrial Lower City and adjacent port facilities area; Hadar, the historic commercial center; and the residential Carmel Center neighborhood, which overlooks the Haifa Bay. Since then, these neighborhoods have changed drastically. The Lower City and Hadar have been particularly hard-hit by the gradual decline of the city’s once mighty industrial base. 

Yitzhak Falishon, 61, who works as a security guard at the line’s Gan Ha’em station, remembers the Carmelit as a child.

“When I was a kid, there used to be a lot more people using it,” Falishon said with nostalgia. “I would go with my mother to Hadar, which was then a bustling shopping center, and then down to the Lower City, where there was a Turkish market. That’s all gone.”

In the summer of 2006, the Carmelit found an unexpected new use. Hundreds of residents crowded into the usually empty underground stations, seeking shelter from rockets fired at the northern city by Hizbullah in Lebanon.

“The idea was taken from London’s Underground, which sheltered residents during the German blitz,” Zvi Herman, a spokesperson for the Haifa municipality, said. “People crammed into the stations, and were protected.”

After the war ended, business went back to normal. Only about 2,000 people ride the train daily, Carmelit officials said. Many of those are day-trippers who consider the train an attraction.


Miriam Lapin, 19, and her boyfriend Yonatan Becher, 28, a couple who recently made aliya, were pleasantly surprised when they rode the Carmelit for the first time last week during a visit to Haifa.

“It’s fun, just like a kid’s ride,” Lapin, a native of France, said. “You feel a bit like you’re in Europe.”

Judith Drori and her two granddaughters shared the same car as Lapin and Becher. The three were on an outing to the municipal zoo next to Gan Ha’em.

“I wanted to show my granddaughters a good time, so I decided to take the Carmelit there,” Drori said. 

Drori, who has lived in Haifa all her life, admitted she rarely uses the Carmelit, but added that she felt fondly toward it.

“The Carmelit is like Israel,” she said affectionately, as the train pulled in slowly to its terminus at Gan Ha’em Station. It is very small, but nice.”


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