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

The Jewish Chronicle - - Travel -

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

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