Valley Railway, renewed

Work on the tracks and station buildings of the restored line, due to open at the end of 2016, is progressing apaceץ

Valley Railway (photo credit: ISRAEL ROADS)
Valley Railway
(photo credit: ISRAEL ROADS)
The Valley Railway opened for business in 1905 as a branch of the Hejaz Railway, which was intended to transport Muslim pilgrims to the holy city of Mecca. Money for the project ran out before the line to Mecca was completed, but the branch from Haifa to Damascus operated until the establishment of the State of Israel (and the closing of the border with Syria) in 1948.
The section of the line from Haifa to el-Hama (Hamat Gader) passed through the Jezreel Valley, an area of heavy Jewish settlement from the second decade of the 20th century. The original stations were Haifa (today called Haifa East, closed to passengers and housing the Israel Railway Museum), Tel Hanan, Kfar Yehoshua (then called Tel e-Shamam), Afula, Beit She’an (Beisan), Jisr el-Majamie, Tzemah (Samakh) and el-Hama, where the line crossed into Syria.
With the exception of Tel Hanan and Jisr el-Majamie, all the old stations still exist. As the area was settled and developed, other stations were added along the line.
There are many legends about the slow and infrequent trains, such as the possibility of jumping off the train to pick flowers and then climb aboard again, although these stories have also been foisted on small local railways around the world.
In 2003 the government decided to rebuild the Valley Railway, on a slightly different route, from Haifa to Beit She’an. The railway is due to open around the end of 2016. The line will start from the existing station of Haifa Lev Hamifratz, with stations at Kfar Baruch, Kfar Yehoshua, Afula and Beit She’an.
Earlier this month a group of journalists spent a day visiting old and new sites along the Valley Railway, where work is progressing apace on new station buildings and track-laying.
The tour was organized by Israel Roads (Netivei Yisrael, formerly the Public Works Department), which is carrying out the work, and the Council for Conservation of Heritage Sites in Israel.
The tour (by bus!) began at the new Beit She’an station, which is almost completed. Ran Manova, the project director for this station, said it will be finished in two months. The station, which is some distance from the town, will have an access road, parking for 400 cars, six bus routes – timed to connect with trains – and a park-and-ride, and everything will be wheelchair-accessible.
Manova took us on a tour of the station, which has two platforms. There will eventually be four tracks at this terminus station. The entire length of the line, 60 kilometers, will initially be single-track, with a second track to be laid in the future. All road crossings will be bridges – the line will have no level crossings for safety reasons.
While the line will be used for freight trains as well as passenger trains, there will be no freight terminal at Beit She’an station. Manova said the location of the freight terminal, which in addition to Israeli freight will be used for Jordanian freight to Haifa Port, has yet to be decided. Freight trains will run at night to avoid conflicting with passenger trains.
THE TOUR participants then visited the old station of Beit She’an, some 300 meters away, where many buildings have been preserved. When it opened in 1905 it was the largest station on the line apart from Haifa, even though it served a very sparsely populated area. The main station building, an impressive construction with numerous arches, was destroyed in the 1927 earthquake and never rebuilt, but the adjacent warehouse building has been renovated and has acquired a new roof.
Another old-new location visited on the tour was Kfar Yehoshua. The old station, whose buildings have been restored, has been turned into a museum of the Valley Railway, which is wellworth a visit. Included in the restored buildings is the water tower, an essential component of a station in the days of steam locomotives, which needed water to convert into steam as motive power.
The new line runs parallel to the old alignment at Kfar Yehoshua, with the new station about 2 km. west of the old one. Oren Rosen, the head of the construction project for this station, explained that it is designed as a homage to the old station, with a single story and a sloping roof, unlike any other station in Israel, and even a “water tower,” which will be solely for decoration. The station will have 600 parking places.
The entire line is being constructed with minimal disturbance to the natural landscape and the least possible amount of friction with road users. Hundreds of trees and other plants between Haifa and Afula have been removed from their original location and replanted by Israel Roads, to enhance the landscape. Bicycle paths are being constructed; roads will be widened and traffic lights will be replaced by traffic circles. To allow farm workers to pass from one side of the railway track to the other, small underpasses are being constructed in a style reminiscent of the original bridges on the old Valley Railway. In addition, there will be culverts to allow the passage of wildlife and to prevent flooding.
In Afula, the railway will pass under the town in three tunnels. A new station is under construction on the northern edge of Afula, on Road 60, and the bus station will be moved here from its current location in the town center.
The Haifa terminus will be at Lev Hamifratz station, at a separate platform (passengers from other parts of the country will have to change trains at Lev Hamifratz).
The line is being built with infrastructure for electrification. The entire project will cost NIS 4 billion, and is the biggest infrastructure project in Israel’s history after Road 6.
The original Valley Railway was built in two years, and journey time from Haifa to Beit She’an was around two hours. Construction of the new line is taking twice as long, but in contrast the modern trains, which will be able to reach speeds of up to 160 kph, will cover the distance in about half an hour.
As with its predecessor, the new railway will bring much-needed development and jobs to the periphery.