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When we first arrived at the Israel Railway Museum, I was convinced that we had come to the wrong place. You don't expect to see modern trains whizzing by in a museum. But that's what makes this museum unique: It is situated in a station that is in regular use.
Trains usually pass through this station, called Haifa East, without stopping; but a group of 25 or more visitors on their way to visit the museum can arrange for the train to stop there.
Hearing trains in the background as you wander around the museum gives it a living, authentic feel, which is as it should be, as trains have been a very important means of travel in Israel since their inauguration in 1892. For a number of years, cars took over as the main means of transportation because of their speed and improved roads, as well as the convenience of not having to travel to a station. However today, with overcrowded roads, long traffic jams and polluted air, the modernized trains are once again taking their place in the forefront of transportation.
The first train in Israel wound its way between Jaffa and Jerusalem in 1892 and raced along at a rattling speed covering the 87 kilometers in just under four hours.
But the Israel/Palestinian rail service was used mainly by the non-Jewish inhabitants of this area. With Israel situated on a vital commercial and religious route between Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and farther east toward Mecca, rail travel provided a quick, efficient means of travel between these countries for both people and goods.
Haifa came into the picture in 1904 with the inauguration of the line between Haifa and Beit She'an. Later this line was continued to the Dera junction, which forked north to Damascus in Syria and south to Amman, Jordan. This was the famous Hedjaz railway, which was originally built to enable pilgrims to travel from Damascus to Medina in Saudi Arabia. From there, they made their way to Mecca. This track reduced the time taken by the Muslim pilgrims from a two-month, extremely expensive camel trek to a four-day, 90% cheaper train ride.
Not surprisingly, the camel caravan organizers didn't take this hijacking of their livelihood lying down, and many train tracks were blown up and attacked in an unsuccessful attempt to halt the growth of rail travel.
In 1915 the Turkish Military Railway line from Afula to Beersheba and farther south to the Sinai Desert was laid. In 1919 the British, who were then governing Palestine, set up a regular daily train between Haifa and Cairo.
After the establishment of the State of Israel, a regular passenger service was established between Haifa and Jerusalem via Tel Aviv. The trip took four hours, as the train wound its way gently around the Judean hills. Because of the steep gradients, train travel between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv was never the quick option, but it offered beautiful views of the hills and valleys and was used enthusiastically by tourists and families.
As an ex-Brit, I've grown up as a rail traveler, knowing it to be usually the quickest, safest way of traveling long distances up and down England. I remember with great nostalgia the excitement of being lulled to sleep in a sleeping berth, too excited to actually nod off as the train sped along from London to northern Scotland with its repetitious, reassuring rhythm.
Old trains, which were like VIP reception rooms on wheels, are brought back to life in the museum. Here, you can see the Saloon coach, which was built in England in 1922. It was used for visiting dignitaries such as emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, queen Elizabeth of Belgium and Sir Winston Churchill, who later became the British prime minister. In the carriage you can see the dining table with a meal served on fine china, the plush chairs, the sideboard and the ornate wall clock.
Once the line was reopened after the War of Independence, now under the Israeli government's management, David Ben-Gurion was the first to make the journey in this carriage.
There is also an ambulance coach, built in Belgium in 1893, which was used for transporting wounded soldiers from the front line, during World War I.
A tank locomotive, from the narrow gauge Hedjaz Railway, which was built in Germany, is the only steam locomotive that still exists in Israel and was preserved for the museum.
When Israel Railways wanted a special coach for reserved seating accommodation in 1970, they bought a former British Railways coach, which is also on display here.
All these exhibits are housed in what was once the locomotive shed of the Hedjaz Railway. It was renovated for use as a museum in 2000.
As you leave the main exhibition hall, you see outside the one thing that gives away the fact that this is a site for train lovers and tourists and not a station in regular use. All the outdoor equipment, such as cranes and the like, are painted in beautiful shiny bright colors instead of the more usual drab colors you see in regular train stations. These two bright cranes were built by Cowans in England for lifting derailed and wrecked trains.
Crossing over the footbridge, we then visited the building that houses the small exhibits - the things many of us remember from the railway's heyday.
Paul Cotterell, the British-born curator, showed us around these exhibits which needed a bit more explanation, especially for the younger visitors. He pointed out old signposts, tickets and stamps depicting railways around the world. We saw the old semaphore signals, which were the predecessors of the electric signals and indicated to the train's conductor and engineer whether it was safe to continue along the line ahead.
There is also a photo gallery and a large collection of railwaymaker's identity plates, which were always affixed to the engines. Using a model, Cotterell showed us how steam engines worked. The last one to operate in Israel was in 1959, but that's not the one in the museum.
The trains speeding by as we left were new, sleek, two-tiered and clean, leaving no trail of smoke behind them. But the ones we had just seen, although they were slower and dustier, had an air of pomp, adventure and romance about them that the modern locomotives lack.