(photo credit: Ann Goldberg)
Trains in various shapes and sizes, including the new light rail in Jerusalem,
have started to come back to the forefront of Israeli transportation. They’re
fast, cause less pollution than the thousands of cars which clog up the roads
every day, and passengers can travel in comfort and relax and read or work as
Not so long ago trains were a much slower way of getting
around but even so played a very important part in people’s lives. One of the
most famous lines is the now non-operational Valley Railway (Rakevet Ha’emek), a
section of the Hejaz Railway, built by the Ottomans connecting Damascus to
Medina, with a branch to Haifa. The Haifa-Hamat Gader section was opened in 1905
but operated for less than half a century, due to the War of Independence.
Although there were plans to restore it afterwards, it never
Sections of these older train tracks can still be seen from
Haifa, along the Jezreel Valley, through the Beit She’an Valley and up to Tzemah
junction at the southern tip of Lake Kinneret.
The Jezreel Valley is one
of the most fertile areas of the country – when managed correctly. The secret is
keeping it swamp-free and taking advantage of its rich soil. The Arabs who
originally owned the land were not successful at draining the swamps and were
happy to sell the “useless” land to the Jews, who quickly set about turning it
into fertile cropland. This is why it was named in Hebrew Yizra El – “God will
When the railway tracks were laid down, it was much easier to
transport the crops to Haifa and the rest of the country, and out of Palestine.
It was also a means of communication; messages and mail were sent on the same
train and news was exchanged at the stations on the way, bringing scattered
communities closer together.
The train was slow, but better than
transporting the produce by any other means as it arrived at its destination on
the same day. Water towers had to be built every 25 kilometers as this was as
far as the steam-driven train could travel without needing to take on more
water. Inevitably a station and village grew up around the water
1. HAIFA RAILWAY MUSEUM To get a taste of life on the railway in
the past century, the best place to start is the Israel Railway Museum at the
old Haifa East station.
The main building here was once the Ottoman
locomotive shed for the Hejaz Railway and there are several refurbished old
coaches on display, including a saloon coach which was used for conveying VIPs
such as visiting heads of state, government officials and railway
Also on display is the last steam locomotive used in Israel, as well as an
ambulance coach used to transport the wounded from the front during World War
A recent addition is a lighthearted film, which you can watch while
sitting in one of the old carriages, describing the changeover in Israel from
the old steam trains to modern, sleek, diesel-electric trains. A walk over the
bridge will bring you to the building that houses all the small memorabilia of
the old railway system, from train timetables to tickets, stamps picturing the
various trains and signs on the tracks.
2. KFAR YEHOSHUA STATION The
second largest station on the Valley Railway was at Kfar Yehoshua. The village
was originally called Tel Esh Shammam but was renamed after Yehoshua Hankin, who
bought the land from the Arabs. This station comprised several buildings which
housed the station master’s family and other permanent station workers, and the
In the year 2000, the Society for the Preservation of Israel
Heritage Sites started to renovate and restore this station and has now made a
visitors’ center out of the old waiting room and station master’s home. The film
shown to visitors here is fun, fast paced and gives a great idea of the amount
of work that went into setting up the long Hejaz Railroad and the role it played
in our history. The film includes pop-ups showing some of the railway’s
multicultural connections with the Jews, Arabs, Turks and British, all adding
their part to the colorful story.
3. ALROI STATION A bit further along
the line you reach Alroi, where the local railway enthusiasts took it upon
themselves to renovate the small station building, and colorfully restored
wagons now sit on the line in the middle of a delightful park.
GESHER Old Gesher, the site of the original Kibbutz Gesher in the Jordan Valley,
incorporates an amazing amount of recent Zionist history, including its
importance as a station on the Valley Railway. The remains of three bridges can
be seen there: a 2000- year-old Roman bridge, a 100-year-old Turkish bridge
which was part of the Valley Railway and an 80-year-old bridge built by the
British during the Mandate.
Kibbutz Gesher was founded in 1939 to defend
this important crossroad. Already in April 1948, before independence had been
declared, they were attacked. After the state was declared, realizing how
vulnerable they were they evacuated the 50 children by foot, under cover of
Shiran, a third-generation member of Kibbutz Gesher, told of
her grandparents’ ordeal and how they all decided the only way to buy a bit more
time before they were overrun by the armies of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria was to
blow up the three bridges. By June the battle was over, but the kibbutz had been
almost totally destroyed. The only remaining buildings were the dining hall and
the underground shelter. Six members were killed in the fierce
Today you can hear the story and see a film of the founding of
the kibbutz and what it endured, and visit the museum housed in the underground
5. NAHARAYIM HYDRO-ELECTRIC MODEL In the 1920s a man of
extraordinary vision, Pinhas Rutenberg, decided he was going to set up a
hydroelectric plant to supply Israel’s electricity needs.
Despite all the
setbacks and derision he met with he succeeded in coming to an agreement with
the Jordanian royal family, as he needed to use a section of land which belonged
to the Hashemite kingdom: the area where the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers
In 1932, after many years of negotiations and building, the plant
started operating and it worked perfectly for 16 years, supplying 90 percent of
the country’s needs. But in 1948 during the War of Independence it was bombed,
and was never operational again.
The members of the kibbutz have built an
incredibly clear, vivid model showing exactly how it was built and how it
operated with dams, bridges and turbines. An accompanying film also describes
the ordeal that Rutenberg went through to see his dream fulfilled.