On track for a fresh look at Israel
A £3.5 billion investment in Israel’s railway lines and rolling stock makes the train a great way to see the country, says Matthew Teller
Railways in Israel are on the up. Only 10 years ago, the network was skeletal — a handful of lines (some not even connected to the rest) and old and shabby rolling-stock.
These days, thanks to almost £3.5 billion of investment, the picture is quite different: Israeli trains are spruce and clean, stations are modern and well-kept, services are punctual and new lines are being opened. Sightseeing by rail is now a viable — and uniquely scenic — way to explore the country.
It all starts at the airport: Ben Gurion has fast trains running every 20 minutes direct to Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beer Sheva. If your heart sinks at the prospect of driving out of the airport after a long flight to face the lanejumping speed freaks on Highway 1, the train is for you.
The city of Tel Aviv now has four stations: University in the North; Ha-Hagana alongside the central bus station in the south; Ha-Shalom on the Kaplan/Dizengoff artery; and the main central hub for the national network, Tel Aviv Merkaz (Savidor). All of them are bright, modern buildings with airport-style security, electronic information boards and decent cafés. Suburban lines extend to Petach Tiqva, Rosh Haayin, Kfar Saba and — arriving soon — Ra’anana, with frequent service to Herzliya, Netanya and Rehovot.
I took a trip to Haifa (just 41 minutes from central Tel Aviv), where the rail system has also seen a major shake-up. The former main station at Bat Galim has been downgraded, in favour of shiny new bus-and-train complexes on the southern approaches at Hof Ha-Carmel and the northern outskirts at Lev Hamifratz.
A short walk from Haifa Merkaz, at Haifa East station by the port, stands the Israel Railway Museum, a fascinating glimpse back to the days before 1948, when Haifa was a major international rail junction with daily passenger trains to Cairo and Beirut, and also followed a branch of the Hejaz Railway east to Transjordan and Syria, where they connected with trains to Damascus and Amman.
I strolled through a restored 1922 saloon car once occupied by Winston Churchill, complete with highly polished wood panelling and overstuffed armchairs, and admired a venerable engine from 1902 — the last steam locomotive left in Israel. Paul Cotterell, the museum’s curator and author of The Railways of Palestine and Israel (available on Amazon), showed me round the main exhibition rooms, filled with maps, timetables and all kinds of memorabilia.
Haifa may yet see its former status revived: plans are under way to restart services east to Afula and Bet She’an, opening the door for possible extension of the line into Jordan. Yet bizarrely, trains no longer stop at Haifa East, a peculiarity which has left this excellent museum somewhat high and dry. Similarly profound change is afoot further south. The current line to Jerusalem was built from Jaffa by the British in 1892, running across the plain to Lod, Ramle and Bet Shemesh before heading into the hills on a slow but spectacularly scenic route, far from any roads. I’ve taken this train several times over the years and it is, frankly, an underrated national treasure — for its views and its history, truly one of the great railway journeys of the world.
The original Ottoman station below the Jaffa Gate has regrettably been abandoned, so the current terminus is the Malcha Mall, on Jerusalem’s southern outskirts. But work is already proceeding on a new high-speed line, an extension of the Tel Aviv–Ben Gurion Airport track to Jerusalem’s central bus station at Binyanei Hauma, due to open by 2012. This will be engineered with tunnels and bridges to enable trains to go fast and direct, cutting the journey time between central Tel Aviv and central Jerusalem to just 28 minutes. Try that in a bus.
A slick, modern train passing in front of the red-roofed Haifa East station
The modern platforms at Binyamina station in the centre of the country