Tender issued for railway that could reach Jordan

The proposed Jezreel Valley line would roughly follow the route of the defunct Hejaz railway built by the Ottoman Empire.

Jezreel Valley line 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jezreel Valley line 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Transportation Ministry on Monday issued the first tender for a portion of a railway line it hopes will one day connect the country with Jordan, but political sensitivities in the region may put the plan on ice for years.
The proposed Jezreel Valley line will roughly follow the route of the defunct Hejaz railway built by the Ottoman Empire during the first half of the 20th century that connected Haifa with Jordan, Syria and Arabia.
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“The Jordanians are interested in furthering the project that would allow them to send freight trains through Haifa to Europe,” Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz said in a statement.
The tender issued this week was for a portion of track between Haifa and Afula, a city located half way to the Israeli terminus at Beit She’an. The ministry said it expected the line to Beit She’an to be up and running by 2016, with an extension to nearby Jordan via the Jordan River Border Crossing/Sheikh Hussein Bridge at an unspecified date in the future.
If realized, the line will provide Jordanian products with a Mediterranean outlet to Europe and North America. Currently such products have to take a circuitous route through the port of Aqaba on the Red Sea.
While the Transportation Ministry’s press release highlighted the planned link to Jordan, government officials declined to answer questions about the probability that the project will be carried out anytime soon.
“I don’t want to speak about it, because it won’t help push things forward,” ministry spokesman Avner Ovadia said on Tuesday.
Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty in 1994 but their relations have often been strained due to the unresolved conflict between Israel, the Palestinians and neighboring countries like Syria and Lebanon. The recent political turmoil in the Middle East of late has not been conducive to joint Israeli-Arab commercial ventures.
The Jordanian Embassy in Tel Aviv on Tuesday did not respond to questions regarding the proposed railway link.
A pipeline Egypt used to export natural gas to Israel and Jordan was blown up by unknown saboteurs a few days after the uprising that ousted president Hosni Mubarak broke out. Despite repeated promises from Egyptian authorities, the supply of gas to Israel has yet to be renewed.
The fabled Hejaz railway, which operated from 1908–1920 and ran from Damascus to Medina, with a branch line to Haifa (and on to Acre), and a spur from Afula to Nablus, has a special place in Jezreel Valley lore. According to one possibly apocryphal story told by old-timers, service on that portion of the line, which operated from 1905 to 1949, with occasional use by tourists in 1950-51, was so slow that passengers could disembark from the carriages while still in motion, pick wild flowers in the surrounding fields and then run back in time to catch the snailpaced train.
According to the Transportation Ministry, the new line will break with that tradition and have trains traveling at speeds of up to 160 kilometers an hour.