Israel's elusive golden spike

The Jerusalem fast-train project, which is approaching completion, will be dwarfed by the railway to Eilat – assuming its brave plan is ever implemented.

A media tour showcases the last stages of the construction of the new high-speed railway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
A media tour showcases the last stages of the construction of the new high-speed railway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
“The long-looked-for moment has arrived,” exclaimed The New York Times on May 10, 1869, as its correspondent reported from Promontory, Utah, that “the construction of the Pacific Railroad is un fait accompli.”
Having just witnessed the hammering of the golden spike that linked the freshly laid tracks to Utah’s east and west, the Times connected the project’s geographic dots and spelled its historic meaning: “The inhabitants of the Atlantic seaboard and the dwellers on the Pacific slopes are henceforth emphatically one people.”
The message resonated instantaneously, as church bells rang, locomotives whistled and cannon barrels fired across the union’s 37 states, as Americans saw in the railways’ connection a sign of national maturation and an engine of economic resurgence.
Now, the Israeli version of that breakthrough is on the drawing board, where a government-approved fast-train scheme promises to connect the Mediterranean and Red seas in just a two-hour commute between Tel Aviv and Eilat.
True, the proposed 370-km railway to Eilat will be but a fraction of the 4,000-km worth of rail tracks that the golden spike in Utah lynchpinned. Nonetheless, the planned Eilat train will be for Israel as momentous as the Pacific Railroad, the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Orient Express were for America, Russia and Europe.
ISRAEL’S RAILWAY revolution will be launched at the end of March, when a fast train will depart from between Tel Aviv’s spires and arrive only 28 minutes later in the Holy City.
Initially scheduled to run every 30 minutes, and eventually every 15, the Jewish state’s first electric train will carry as many as 1,000 passengers at a time between Israel’s political and commercial capitals while nearly halving the current 50-minute car ride, and altogether putting to shame the current 80-minute train ride (not counting the stopover in Beit Shemesh).
The Jerusalem fast train, which includes Israel’s longest tunnel, tallest bridge, longest bridge and one of the world’s deepest train stations, is an engineering feat, not because of its length – a mere 57 km – but because of its incline.
The world’s fabled fast trains – like those bulleting between Tokyo and Osaka, Paris and Strasbourg, or Moscow and St. Petersburg – all cross flatlands. Mountainous rides are mostly scenic, and therefore happily slow, intended for carefree tourists rather than time-pressured commuters.
Israel’s unique situation, whereby the capital sits atop mountains, has created a topographic constraint, which the new train will overcome by crossing 16 bridges and tunnels that form a straight, east-west line that will slice its way through the Judean mountains’ ribs.
The need to climb quickly from sea level to nearly 800 meters made the engineers temper the incline by beginning the train’s climb well to the west of the Judean foothills, along a 1.2-km viaduct.
That, in brief, is how the 6.8 billion shekel Jerusalem fast train became the most expensive public works project in Israel’s history, topping schemes like the Cross Israel Highway, Ben-Gurion Airport and the National Water Carrier.
Even so, the Jerusalem fast train is not analogous to the world’s great transcontinental railways because as much as it is nationally and economically vital, it merely upgrades the links between two cities which, despite their flaws, have been bustling for generations.
TRAFFIC TO Eilat has never been thick or fast. Indeed, the prospective fast train will redefine the place of the entire south in Israel’s future, while bridging high seas and costing more than any other scheme Israel ever undertook.
Sprawling some 200 km beyond the eastwest line between the Gaza Strip and the Dead Sea, the south covers some 60 percent of Israel within its internationally recognized borders, but is inhabited by less than one-tenth of its population.
Though this anomaly is partly due to the Negev Desert’s aridity, the south’s sparse settlement is also due to its dramatic compilation of mountains, ravines, craters and cliffs. The Middle East’s railway pioneers, the Ottomans, therefore skipped this area even while stretching railroads to Mecca, Damascus, Haifa and Jerusalem.
World War I made the Turks hastily stretch railways south, to Beersheba and the Sinai, as military confrontation with British- ruled Egypt loomed. Even so, the Turks did not consider an outlet to the Red Sea. It made no sense from their viewpoint.
The British opened a passenger line between Lydda, by today’s Ben-Gurion Airport, and Qnatara, on the Suez Canal’s west bank, which became the popular form of travel between Palestine and Egypt. However, Britain, too, saw no point in leading trains across the Negev, and in fact discontinued even the line to Beersheba, which was indeed unprofitable.
The young Jewish state’s attitude was entirely different because its founders vowed to make the Negev home to millions.
That is why Israel reconstructed the abandoned line to Beersheba and resumed its service in 1956, even though its population at the time was hardly one-tenth of its current 205,000 inhabitants.
Still, for most Israelis, the Negev that sprawled beyond Beersheba remained remote, even after the Beersheba line’s 30- km extension southeast to Dimona in 1965, and even after tracks were laid a further 25 km south, to the western foothills of Mount Zin.
Yes, trains now chugged between the windswept hilltops overlooking the Big and Small Craters abutting the Dimona nuclear reactor, but they were freight trains carrying locally produced minerals and chemicals to the Port of Ashdod, rather than passengers from Tel Aviv to Eilat.
Now, as Israel’s train grid matures, a railway to Eilat no longer sounds far-fetched.
This does not mean that this project will be simple or that it will even come to fruition, as the physical, political and financial dilemmas it involves are not much smaller than its social, economic and geopolitical promise.
on the Eilat railway’s general route.
Unlike the Jerusalem fast train, Eilat’s will not run along the shortest geometric line between its origin in Tel Aviv and its terminus by the Red Sea. Such a course would have meant first meandering between or tunneling through the central Negev mountains, which loom a good 200 meters higher than Jerusalem, and then slicing through the Ramon Crater, the bronzy moonscape that is one of Israel’s most bewitching geological landmarks.
Instead, after proceeding south from Dimona along the existing freight trains’ tracks, the railway will veer east, toward the Arava Valley south of the Dead Sea, whence it will race south unchallenged by topography, as the 170-km climb along the mostly flat Arava, toward the Red Sea coast, will start at roughly 160 meters below sea level.
The 370-km line’s opposite end, the 130-km Tel Aviv-Dimona stretch, is even simpler from the planner’s viewpoint, as it already exists and carries passenger trains daily. Though that end will also demand upgrading, so as to carry electric trains, that task should not be complex.
Moreover, the extensive stretches at the line’s northern and southern ends allow its trains to gather the kind of speed that the Jerusalem fast train cannot gather due to its short route, which will limit its speed to 160 km per hour. The Eilat line will travel at 250 km per hour, on par with Europe’s fast trains.
The prospective Eilat line’s physical challenge lies in its middle segment, where it is to descend from the northeastern Negev to the Arava.
Topographically, this entails dropping within a mere 35 km from 465 meters above sea level to 160 meters below sea level, as the locomotive descends from the hilltops overlooking the southern Dead Sea to Hatzeva, 25 km south of the lake that is the lowest place on earth.
Environmentally, this segment of the railway must negotiate a path up the steep slopes west of little-traveled Road 227’s serpentines at Maale Akravim, and then cross the Yamin Plateau between the Big and Small Craters, where the swooshing trains would endanger rare desert flora.
The existing freight tracks, besides needing an overhaul to shoulder double-track fast trains, follow a big horseshoe path surrounding the Tzin and Oron industrial zones south of Dimona. To avoid the exiting tracks’ horseshoe-shaped path as well as the terrain within it, the fast train will underpass this area through an 8.4-km tunnel that will climb some 200 meters in elevation between Mount Tzin’s eastern foothills and the Big Crater’s northeastern rim.
Environmentalist organizations suggested an alternative scheme, a pair of 11-km and 15-km tunnels that would have further minimized the train’s clash with local nature, but the planners said it would raise the project’s cost by 5 billion shekels.
Despite this saving, the project’s cost is moderately estimated at 27.5b. shekels, roughly four times the Jerusalem project’s price tag.
Even so, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is eager to lead a railway to Eilat, arguing that it will connect the overcrowded coastal plain to the sparsely settled south, and in due course multiply its population.
That is why Netanyahu had the government pass already in 2012 Resolution 4223 for the construction of a railway to Eilat, a strategic statement that was followed in 2013 by the Planning Authority’s approval of the path we have just mapped.
In Netanyahu’s vision, besides doing to the Israeli south what the Pacific Railway did to the American west, the Eilat railway would do to global maritime trade what no railway ever did to a pair of seas, as it will connect the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.
Though the Suez Canal already makes this link, the Eilat railway will allow vessels to avoid the often long wait – up to eight hours – before entering the canal, by veering northeast at Sharm el-Sheikh before offloading in Eilat cargos that will then be transshipped to Ashdod Port.
Still, despite its national merit and international promise, the Eilat railway project has yet to descend from the drawing board to the construction field. Preparations were reportedly made in 2016 to issue in 2017 an international tender for the line’s construction, but this has yet to happen.
ONE CIRCUMSTANCE behind this delay is skepticism in the budget department, where some suspect that the project’s already hefty price tag will in reality rise even higher. Others in the Treasury warn that the number of passengers will not cover the costs of the line’s construction and operation.
Another factor is the tender’s addressees.
Netanyahu apparently wants the project to cement Israel’s expanding ties with China by letting the Chinese build it. The Chinese, besides eyeing such a contract’s financial value, also see it as part of their Maritime Silk Road vision, which aims to nurture an inter-oceanic trade route from China to the Mediterranean.
This is the context in which Israel and China signed an agreement in 2012 to cooperate in building the Eilat railway project.
The generally pro-market Netanyahu’s preference in this case of state management was also hinted at in the government resolution of 2012, which specifically ordered the Ministry of Transport, National Infrastructure and Road Safety to explore “government- to-government” venues as well as private alternatives.
The commotion surrounding the Eilat railway has subsided since that resolution, creating the impression that it might never happen.
The impression is mistaken. This spring, as thousands begin using the new Tel Aviv-Jerusalem fast train, they will develop an appreciation for fast trains’ utility and feasibility.
That, more than any learned argument or financial computation, is what will ultimately lead an Israeli fast train south, to the shores of the sea that Moses once parted, to the coastline where the Jewish state will eventually hammer its transport revolution’s golden spike.