Eilat train
'The fast track to approve the train to Eilat is liable to turn into a fast track to destroying nature in the Negev and damaging the Gulf of Eilat,' said the Enviornment Protection Ministry. Photo by Dov Greenblatt; simulation by Tomer Harari
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A ministerial committee approved on Sunday a train route between Tel Aviv and Eilat, the most expensive transportation project Israel has ever undertaken.

Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz was the only one who opposed the rail line.

The plan received a green light despite the absence of a link between the Eilat and Ashdod ports, so as to create a so-called “land bridge” between Europe and Asia, which was touted as the project’s main benefit. Critics also say the rail line could endanger the coral reefs off the coast of Eilat.

Some participants in a National Planning and Building Council meeting held last month expressed surprise at the plan to approve the rail line even though no plans have been drafted to link it to the ports and it’s not clear how much the port link will cost. Experts in the field said it would be necessary to modify the entrances to the ports to allow for cargo to be loaded onto the trains and unloaded from them. Once the Ministerial Committee for Internal Affairs and Services grants its approval, officials will be able to draft detailed plans for every segment of the route.

Among other things, the implementation of the plan might require works to expand the Gulf of Eilat. “From the planning standpoint alone, we have to address this,” said David Weinberg, who attended last month’s meeting as a representative of the Health Ministry. “Not doing so is like planning a building from the second floor and up.”

Government officials involved in the project said the planning proceedings were in the initial stages and that what was up for discussion were various possibilities to link the rail line with Eilat Port. The train is expected to go into operation in about a decade.

“The fast track to approve the train to Eilat is liable to turn into a fast track to destroying nature in the Negev and damaging the Gulf of Eilat,” he said in a joint statement with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. Peretz and the environmental groups are calling for an in-depth review of the environmental effects the project could have on Eilat and its coral reefs, as well as on tourism in the resort city on Israel’s southernmost tip.

Environmentalists and social activists have said the rail line will turn out to be a white elephant that doesn’t justify its cost and will cause the state to divert resources from improving public transportation in urban areas.

However, the Transportation Ministry insisted that the rail route would not reach the Eilat Port. “It won’t damage the coral reefs and won’t come at the expense of other public transit projects for which budgets have been allocated as planned,” it said in a statement. “It is of strategic importance for the State of Israel and for strengthening the outlying areas” of the country.

The direct link to the Eilat and Ashdod ports will turn Israel into a “land bridge” for goods traveling between Europe and the Far East, according to Netivei Yisrael, Israel’s national roads company, which is responsible for planning the rail line.

The roads company and the Transportation Ministry say the rail link is not meant to compete with Egypt’s Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, allowing for the transfer of goods by ship between Europe and Asia. But the estimate is that Israel’s planned rail line will 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.

The train will also provide rapid access to Eilat from the center of the country, reducing travel time from four or five hours by car or bus to two hours by train, and will make it easier to commute between the center of the country and the Negev. An estimated 5 million passengers a year are expected to ride the train once it goes into operation.

The roads company is looking into several options for linking the train to Eilat Port, including building a terminal north of Eilat, requiring the cargo to be transferred by truck along the road that goes around the city. Another option is to build an underground railroad track that connects to the cargo terminal at the port or to build a new cargo terminal that involves digging a canal along the international border.

Environmental groups say the new train line, which will pass through 37 kilometers of nature reserves, could have a negative environmental impact on the Negev and the Gulf of Eilat. The increased presence of cargo ships and the construction that will go along with the project will cause pollution levels to rise and will endanger the coral reefs in the area, according to ecologists at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Netivei Yisrael said it plans to use tunnels or bridges to minimize ecological damage in the nature reserves and build pathways for animals living in those areas.

It remains unclear who will take on the rail project once all the approvals are in place, but the tentative plan is for the project to be managed by a Chinese company that would build and operate the rail line.

Former Mossad director Ephraim Halevy came out over the weekend against allowing a Chinese company to run the Eilat rail project. Yedioth Ahronoth reported that Halevy wrote a report for the Nature and Parks Authority warning that Chinese involvement could hamper Israel’s ties with the United States and Europe. “China provides significant support to the most radical of our enemies,” he wrote.