The National Council for Planning and Building approved plans on Tuesday to build a 260-kilometer railway stretching from Beersheba to Eilat.The decision came after the Southern District Committee for Planning and Building approved the final and most controversial portion of the railway – the route from Dimona to Hatzeva – in mid- February, which followed previous approvals of the Beersheba- Dimona and Hatzeva-Eilat sections.Carrying out the entire project will be the national roads company, Netivei Israel – National Transport Infrastructure Company Ltd.The Eilat railway will include a 240-km. passenger route and a 260-km. freight route, traveling at speeds of between 220 kph and 260 kph, according to the Transportation Ministry. In addition to including eight operational stations and four cargo terminals, the new rail line will have five new passenger stations – at Dimona, Sapir, Ketura, Ramon and Eilat, the ministry said.Environmental groups had particularly opposed plans for the Dimona-Hatzeva stretch, saying it was potentially destructive to nature that had thrived since the biblical area.The Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) had therefore come up with an alternative that would shift this 60-km. section southwest and include tunnels to minimize surface impact.The district committee, however, favored the original plans of Netivei Israel and the Transportation Ministry as much more cost-effective, stressing that the tunnel option would also risk obstruction and reduce operational capacity.Transportation Minister Israel Katz welcomed the council’s decision to approve the project, noting that the plans would bring the periphery much closer to the Center of the country.The project will be one of strategic national importance, and will also allow for the passage of goods from Asia to Israel via the Red Sea, and then on to Europe, the minister said.“The project will be a blessing to factories in the South, and will be a large and significant ingredient in Israeli export in the Negev and the Arava, and in tourism in Eilat and the South,” he said. The railway will also significantly reduce air pollution by reducing the need for polluting trucks, and will directly contribute to the lives of the 700,000 people living in the South, he added.In response to the council’s decision, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) warned that the plans posed a serious threat to nature.“Unfortunately they sell us high-speed passenger trains in attractive packaging, but in practice, this is a destructive mega-project, which will transform the Negev and the Arava and all the natural assets and scenery unique to them into fields of infrastructure, while abandoning the Gulf of Eilat,” an SPNI statement said.