In new comprehensive report, SPNI calls for costly Eilat railway plan to be shelved

If it goes through, Israel will have to bear economic, social implications for "many generations."

Amir Peretz at cabinet meeting 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Amir Peretz at cabinet meeting 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Slamming the Eilat railway project for its exorbitant price tag and environmental risk factors, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) called for an immediate halt to the train plans in a comprehensive report on Monday.
The environmental organization – in conjunction with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Shasha Center for Strategic Studies – submitted the 132-page report on the subject to Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee chairwoman MK Miri Regev (Likud) during a committee session on the subject that morning. In addition to its prohibitive costs and risk factors to nature, the project would probably not be able to meet a large chunk of its stated goals, the authors argued.
“It’s hard to find even one piece of logic that justifies the construction of the project,” a team of seven experts wrote in the SPNI report. “If it goes through, Israel will have to bear the economic and social implications for many generations.”
From a wide variety of fields, the experts responsible for drafting the report were Prof.
Eran Feitelson of Hebrew University’s Geography Department, SPNI ecologist Dr. Ofri Gabay, Dr. Moshe Givoni of Tel Aviv University’s transportation research unit, former Mossad chief Efraim Halevi, Prof. Ilan Salomon of the Hebrew University’s School of Public Policy and Administration, shipping and logistics expert David Rosen, and Israel Nature and Parks Authority Eilat bay ecologist Dr. Asaf Zevuluni.
First and foremost, the authors pointed out that the pricey project will cost more than NIS 23 billion, not including the costs of mobile equipment and the connection to the port of Eilat – which raise the price to about NIS 40b. Although upon initial examination, the project would seem to have sensible goals, a deeper analysis would indicate otherwise, the report explained.
The first such goal presented in the report is the creation of a land bridge for cargo from the Far East to Europe by connecting the Eilat and Mediterranean ports with the railway.
Such an effort, however, would prove unsuccessful, as the railway would provide an expensive and unreliable service in comparison to the transport provided by the Suez Canal, the authors argued.
As opposed to the Suez Canal route, which allows for shipping a container for $30 in 35 days, the more prohibitive Israeli land bridge would require $800 and take 56 days, the report said. Not only would the land bridge provide a lesser contender to the Suez Canal, it could pose a perceived threat to Egypt’s economy, adding stress to an already sensitive relationship, the authors wrote.
In addition, because most Israelis visit Eilat for vacation purposes in families or groups, train travel may not be the least expensive option, the authors argued.
Despite the fact that the project’s goal was to reduce the travel time from Tel Aviv to Eilat to two hours or less, the currently planned time is two hours and 27 minutes, they added.
The rail line alone could not lead to a significant benefit to tourism in Eilat, and would require a simultaneous expansion and upgrade of hotels and attractions in the city, the report said.
Although the operation of an international cargo land bridge could lead to a more prosperous Eilat, the probability of this occurring is negligible due to the unlikelihood of the land bridge’s success, the authors continued.
Another goal challenged by the authors was the notion that the railway’s implementation would reduce traffic accidents on Road 90. In light of the upgrade of Road 90 and the planned separation of the opposing direction lanes on this highway, the number of fatal and serious accidents is likely to diminish without the addition of the railway, they argued.
Israel might find itself failing to realize yet another goal presented by the project, that of strengthening the country’s international status through engagement with foreign governments, the report said. In particular, the authors expressed concern that tentative plans for a Chinese firm to construct the project could damage Israel’s relationship with the United States.
In addition to challenging the relevance of the project’s goals, the authors criticized its planners for failing to adequately assess environmental impacts. The railway would “irreversibly change landscapes, soil, flora and fauna” in its path, as it involves a huge amount of infrastructural change, the report said. Not only affecting the flora and fauna themselves, these changes would negatively impact the human beings that benefit from an enjoyment of the nature there. A bustling Eilat port could threaten the coral reef ecosystem in the Red Sea as well, the authors explained.
“This is a project with a very high environmental price,” they said.
Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz meanwhile stressed at the Internal Affairs and Environment Committee meeting that the railway planners will need to get consent for every single removal of nature reserve area, reminding them that the train route destroys no less than six reserves.
“Only after I give my consent can detailed planning begin,” Peretz said. “I will not agree to be divided among lovers of the Negev and lovers of animals and the environment.
I love both the Negev and the environment and animals, and there is no contradiction there. Exactly the opposite.”
At the session’s conclusion, Regev vowed that she would not allow the project to “gallop ahead” without a series of comprehensive discussions.
During an Economic Affairs Committee session also on the Eilat railway that followed, Transportation and Road Safety Minister Israel Katz defended the plans for the railway and stressed that “there is no train that is economic except maybe the light rail.”
“But the result will be economic at the national level,” Katz continued. “If an economic examination had been conducted, I also assume that the state would not have been established.”