Time travel

100 years ago, a train ambled from Damascus to Haifa. Now it's coming back - this time from Jordan.

train 88 (photo credit: )
train 88
(photo credit: )
At first there was only one train a day in each direction. It moved slowly and unreliably from Damascus, carrying Muslim pilgrims to and from the holy city of Medina. But somehow the Hejaz Railway line became a legend - and not least of all because, 100 years ago last month, its rails carried the first train to steam out of Haifa and wind across the Jezreel Valley. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Jezreel Valley was an uninhabited, malarial swamp, and Haifa had only 8,500 residents. A railway in such a location might have seemed ridiculous - after all, who would use it? But it was not constructed with the needs of the (nonexistent) local inhabitants in mind. Its purpose was to provide access to the sea, and the topography of the area meant the flat land of the Jezreel Valley was the most appropriate route. The concession from the Syria-Ottoman Railway Company to build a line from Haifa was granted to a Lebanese Christian businessman named Joseph Elias and a British entrepreneur, Robert Pilling, in 1891. Construction began in December 1892, just three months after the country's first railway, from Jaffa to Jerusalem, opened. Work progressed slowly, in part because of bureaucratic delays by the Turkish authorities and a lack of finance. By March 1902, earthworks had reached only as far as Beit She'an, 59 km. from Haifa, and only seven km. of track had been laid. However, in that year the Turkish government paid 155,000 Turkish pounds to buy the concession for the 1,320-km.-long Hejaz Railway, which would give the railway direct access to the sea rather than having to rely on the French railway port at Beirut. This branch, which opened in October 1905, became known in Palestine, and later in Israel, as Rakevet Ha'emek, the Valley Railway. The stations were built for the railway's convenience - where locomotives could take on water, for example. There were originally eight stations in what is today Israel: at Haifa, Tel el-Shamam (Kfar Yehoshua), Afula, Shata (Beit Hashita), Beit She'an, Jisr el-Majamie (Gesher Nehalim), Tzemah and El-Hama (Hamat Gader). The stone buildings must have been an extraordinary sight in the middle of the uninhabited wilderness, and they have certainly stood the test of time. With the exception of Beit Hashita, which is inside the Shata Prison, and Gesher, which was demolished by the IDF to prevent its use as a hideout for terrorists, remains of all these stations can still be seen. The terminus in Haifa was a magnificent building, still standing but no longer open for passengers (although trains heading north from Haifa pass through). The station, today called Haifa East, is the home of the Railway Museum. It was not until after the First World War and the British conquest of Palestine that a line linking Haifa with Lod and the rest of the country was built. THE VALLEY railway brought tremendous development to Haifa. From a population of 8,500 in 1890, it grew to 20,000 on the eve of the First World War. The railway and its associated port brought trade and industry to the town, and factories and workshops were established close to the railway yards. In 1868, a group of German Templers had arrived in the town, many of them professionals at a time when such occupations were virtually unknown in the country. Engineers, surveyors, doctors, farmers and craftsmen of all kinds were instrumental in developing Haifa and the region, and even ran road transport services to Acre and Nazareth, something that was previously unknown. Their skills were much in demand for surveying and building the railway. Afula also received a tremendous boost from the railway. In 1905, it was a tiny Arab village called al-Fula. During the First World War, the British established an army base there, and built a branch line southward to Nablus. The plan was eventually to extend this branch to Jerusalem, but this wasn't the last time a railway plan in this part of the world came to nothing. The modern town of Afula was established in 1924, as an urban center for the agricultural communities that were being founded in the Jezreel Valley in those years. Today, one of the old station buildings is used as a soldiers' club house, and another belongs to the youth department of the Afula Municipality. The water tower is also still standing. Moshav Kfar Yehoshua is the home of the only Valley Railway station whose buildings are all still largely intact. When the railway was built, there was no human habitation at this site, and the station was named Tel Shamam after a local mound, presumably the only distinguishing feature for miles around. After the establishment of the moshav in 1927, the members petitioned Palestine Railways to have the station's name listed in Hebrew as Kfar Yehoshua, a request that was acceded to in 1929. Over the years, as the valley was settled by Jewish pioneers, new stations were built to serve the needs of the population, and the frequency of trains increased. The railway entered folklore, as was the case with so many rural railways throughout the world. Noted for its slowness and unreliability, it was nonetheless a lifeline in an area with no direct connections by road. Members of the kibbutzim and moshavim in the area used the railway to transport themselves and their produce to the metropolis of Haifa, from where they could take another train south to Lod, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and even Kantara on the Suez Canal. And not only within Palestine was the line used to export goods. Haifa was the most convenient seaport for Syria and what is today Jordan, and goods were transported by rail to Haifa for export overseas. It was also possible to take the train eastward through Beit She'an and Tzemah, and three times a week, by changing at Dera'a in Syria, one could reach Damascus only 10 hours after leaving Haifa! From Tzemah, a boat service ran to Tiberias. In 1934, there were three trains a day (only two on Sundays) from Haifa to Tzemah, taking about three hours according to the official timetable, but trains rarely kept to time. However, even such an unreliable and slow railway was much better than nothing. The ramshackle railway became the stuff of legend. Old-timer Zerubavel Brakin, 85, of Moshav Kfar Yehezkel recalled that when he and his friends were children they used to put nails and coins on the tracks and watch the train flatten them. He remembers that the trains frequently stalled on the ascent near Beit She'an, and they would have to wait an hour or more for an additional locomotive to be brought from Haifa. Brakin confirmed that the stories about getting off the train to pick flowers were true: It was customary to jump off the first coach and then get back on the last one! On the night of June 16/17, 1946, the Hagana blew up one of the railway bridges over the Yarmuk River, disrupting the service between Haifa and Damascus, which was never resumed. Less than two years later, the State of Israel was established, the borders with the surrounding countries were closed, and the Valley Railway ceased operating. However, occasional trains ran from Haifa to Afula into the 1950s. SOME YEARS ago, Israel Railways announced a plan to rebuild the Valley Railway. IR spokesman Benny Naor said building work is expected to start in the next few months, and finish in 2008. He said there will be five stations - at Nesher, Kfar Yehoshua, Kfar Baruch, Afula and Beit She'an. The old station buildings are to be preserved, and new ones built nearby. The projected cost of the railway is NIS 1 billion, according to Naor. The revived railway will not precisely follow the old route, for technical reasons. It will leave the main Haifa-Nahariya line at Lev Hamifratz East. From Beit She'an the line will continue eastward into Jordan, instead of north to Tzemah on Lake Kinneret and thence into Syria, as it did in the old days. The line is planned to cross the Sheikh Hussein Bridge into Irbid, in Jordan, with the Jordanian section funded by the European Union. Passport control and customs inspection at the Israeli-Jordanian border is likely to resemble the process carried out on other railway systems around the world. Although the procedures of crossing the country's borders by train are a novelty to Israelis, in Europe for example, they are standard practice. In addition to the tourism possibilities that the Jordanian section of the line should open up, it will also give Jordan, whose only seaport is at Aqaba, easy access to Haifa and European markets. But the greatest immediate impact is expected to be felt in the Jezreel Valley itself. Afula Mayor Avi Elkabetz said the revived railway would be a turning point in the development of his city. The station, which he hopes will be underground, is planned to be between the upper and lower parts of the city, transforming the road linking them into Afula's main street, with a new library, conservatory and commercial center. This plan has been dubbed "the unification of the Afulas." Elkabetz said the railway, together with Highway 6, will make travel to Haifa and Tel Aviv much easier, transforming Afula from a town on the periphery to a regional center for the surrounding moshavim and kibbutzim. Not everyone is pleased with the decision to rebuild the Valley Railway. Tsur Yariv, the administrator of Moshav Kfar Yehoshua, said the new route would damage the local environment, taking some 300 dunams of agricultural land. If the authorities were more concerned about preserving the landscape, it would be possible to build the railway parallel to the road, thereby constructing what is known as a united transport corridor, he said. Arik Tapiero, the coordinator of transportation policy and environment for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, said that SPNI is not opposed in principle to the rebuilding of the railway from Haifa to Beit She'an and on to Jordan; however, the organization believes the cost is very high, and it is concerned there will not be much demand for such transport, Tapiero said. Also, he said, the line is slated to go on a high embankment at the Yagur junction opposite the kibbutz, which will cause damage to the landscape. Today it is possible to look southward and see the Carmel mountain range clearly, but the embankment will ruin the view. In his opinion the line should be at ground level, or below ground. Eventually, when the line is electrified - as is planned for the entire Israel Railways network - there will be a further problem of destruction of the landscape, because of the electricity poles every 60 to 70 meters. In addition, the line will be an obstacle to animals, in particular gazelles, crossing from the Carmel to Ramot Menashe, Tapiero explained. One thing is certain: The second incarnation of the Valley Railway will transform the area as much as its predecessor did. An exhibition on the Hejaz Railway is on display at the Haifa Municipal Museum, Sderot Ben-Gurion 11, until February 1, 2006. Open every day except Sunday.