The cabinet on Sunday approved construction of a Red-Med train link between Eilat and Tel Aviv to dramatically reduce travel time between the cities and create an Asian-European cargo link as a possible alternative to the Suez Canal.

The cabinet unanimously approved construction of the 350-kilometer line, which according to a 2007 government evaluation, will cost NIS. 8.6 billion to build. It will include two tracks – one for passenger trains and the other for freight – and is expected to begin operation five years from the start of construction.

According to Sunday’s decision, a team chaired by PMO Director-General Harel Locker will consider three options to finance the project: An “inter-governmental agreement with another government with which there are economic and strategic interests”; public funding; or construction through a private franchisee, as was done for the construction of Road 6.

Last year following a September trip to China, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz said the Chinese expressed interest in the project.

Two weeks ago Katz issued a statement saying the Chinese option was the preferred one, and that over the years government corporations have been established in China that have proven to be efficient.

“Experience shows that the professional ability of Chinese companies in building railway tracks and transportation networks is among the best in the world,” he said.

Katz said Israel and China, which last month celebrated 20 years of diplomatic ties, share common economic and national interests.

In an apparent reference to China and India, Netanyahu said that in the “coming decade new powers will arise [with whom] Israel must create vital interests from a national strategy point-of-view.”

Netanyahu has said that both China and India have expressed a great deal of interest in the project, and that the rail link has “strategic, national and international importance.”

Meanwhile, the prime minister said Sunday that Israel has an interest in creating an alternative route between Asia and Europe to the Suez Canal, and that this could serve as an “insurance policy” in the event that the canal is closed, or could not deal with the increasing volume of traffic. Such a link could serve as a means of transporting goods to Europe, without having to go through the Suez Canal, since cargo unloaded in Eilat would then be sent by rail to Israeli ports, and from there to Europe.

“Israel must become a continental landcrossing route and create great power interest,” he said.

In addition to the strategic aspects of this rail link, Netanyahu said it would shorten travel time from Eilat to Tel Aviv to two hours, “and will change the face of the country.”

“For 63 years, there has been talk about linking the periphery to the center, but nothing has been done,” he said.

Currently, the drive from Tel Aviv to Eilat takes about five hours.

Constructing the new rail link sill necessitate upgrading existing tracks, and laying new ones. The Red-Med railway, according to a Transportation Ministry communiqué, will include 63 bridges, which will span a total of some 4.5 kilometers, and a total of 9.5 kilometers of tunnels.

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