By Peter Feuilherade
This article was first published in MENA Rail News on 8 October 2013
Ignoring objections from Israel’s Environmental Protection Minister, a coalition of activists and environmentalists, economists and even the former head of Mossad, the country’s powerful intelligence agency, a ministerial committee on 6 October approved the building of a twin-track high-speed railway line linking Tel Aviv and the port of Eilat in the Gulf of Aqaba.
No budget costings were included in the announcement, but latest estimates are in excess of 5.6 billion US dollars. Construction work on the 350-km line, which would carry passengers as well as freight, will take an estimated 10 years. If completed, it will be the most expensive transport project in Israel’s 65-year history.
The scheme is being pushed by Transport Minister Yisrael Katz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who says it would have great strategic significance for Israel. But Minister of Environmental Protection Amir Peretz opposes the project, arguing it would harm the environment. The line, with trains travelling at 250 km per hour, “is liable to turn into a fast track to destroying nature in the Negev [desert] and damaging the Gulf of Eilat,” Peretz said in a joint statement with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. Other critics say the project will also divert resources that could be spent on improving public transport in urban areas.
Giving details of the route, Israeli business news website Globes reported that the first 90‑km section of the line from Tel Aviv to Beersheva was already completed, and the second 35‑km section to Dimona required a second line. The website added: “The third 65‑km section from Dimona to Hatzeva will be especially difficult, with a doubling of the existing track to Nahal Zin and 9.2 km of tunnels to reach the Arava. The fourth 160‑km section will run to the northern entrance to Eilat, where the new port channel will be built. The line will not reach the current port. In addition to the tunnels, the route will require 63 bridges extending over 4.5 km.”The announcement made no mention of a link with Israel’s Mediterranean port of Ashdod, creating a “land bridge” between Europe and Asia, which had been touted as the project’s main purpose. Options for linking the railway to the ports are expected to be discussed later.
Netivei Yisrael, Israel’s national roads company, says the proposed rail link is not meant to compete with Egypt’s Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. However, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper quoted estimates that Israel’s planned rail line would allow for “hundreds of thousands of crates of goods to travel between the two continents as well. In addition, Israel will be able to import more than 200,000 cars using the cargo train and export five million tons of chemicals.”
According to Globes, the Prime Minister's Office director‑general Harel Locker is in favour of financing the project as part of an agreement between governments, rather than through a tender in the normal way. The Chinese, French and Spanish governments are interested in the project, and tentative plans are for the project to be managed by a Chinese company that would build and operate the railway line.
However, former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy said Chinese involvement might damage Israel’s ties with the United States and Europe. He warned that if China “actively controlled” the track between Eilat and Ashdod, and the port that the government wants to build in Eilat, it would create a situation in which China would control “political and economic pressure points” within Israel.
In response, Israel's Transport Ministry said: “The government of Israel views positively the interest of the Chinese in the Eilat railway project, and is promoting economic ties with China, something that does not go against the close ties that Israel shares with the United States.”
The latest decision suggests that Netanyahu’s argument in favour of the project’s strategic importance for Israel is taking precedence – for the time being, at least – over the economic counter‑view that a route offering both passenger and freight transport would not be financially feasible.