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Over the past 30 years, transportation ministers have examined the feasibility of building a railway line from Eilat to the center of the country. In every instance, say sources in the transportation sector, it has been determined that such a railway line would not be economically feasible, and the idea has been shelved. Nevertheless, in recent months Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Transportation Minister Avigdor Lieberman have been declaring that they are interested in building one.

The line would operate 24 hours a day and would be an inexpensive and convenient alternative to the transfer of cargo from the Far East to Europe via the Suez Canal. The railway tracks in Israel's southern region today go as far as Nahal Zin, 175 kilometers (109 miles) from Eilat. Sources in the transportation industry say a cargo rail line would cost about NIS 6 billion to build. This is because the route goes over land that is hard to work with and is 400 meters (1,300 feet) lower than Mount Zion, so it would require the construction of bridges and the digging of tunnels along the way.

The sources also note that the conversion of the rail line for passenger service would double its cost. The route mapped out for a cargo line is for one track, travel would be slow and there are many curves. A passenger line would require two sets of tracks and the straightening of the curves. It would likewise be necessary to upgrade the existing line from Dimona to Zin. Transportation Ministry officials believe that the project could be implemented.

The ministry's spokesman said Monday that Lieberman is interested in building the line due to its potential for transferring cargo. The spokesman added that Lieberman believes the line to Eilat would save shipping companies and those who use marine transportation services the expense of passing through the Suez Canal, which costs $100,000-$200,000 per ship.

Under Lieberman's plan, ships from the Far East would dock at the Eilat port, off-load containers and load them onto train cars. These would be brought to Ashdod port via Nahal Zin, Dimona and Be'er Sheva within 3.5 hours. At Ashdod the containers would be reloaded onto ships headed for Europe.

Still, the final decision to build the rail line will be made only after a committee appointed by Netanyahu and Lieberman completes its work in June 2004. The committee, headed by Israel Railways board chair Moshe Leon, will examine the need for the line and its economic feasibility. The committee will check how much cargo the line can expect to transport, and the transportation costs. It will also examine the feasibility of building a line that can be used by passenger trains.

Eyal Melamud, chairman of the Association of Shipping Users, says, however, that it will be quite difficult for a railway line to compete with the Suez Canal. Melamud explains that the ships that pass through the canal each day transport 3,000-5,000 containers each, whereas a train would be able to transport only 200-400 containers. This means that 20-25 trains would be needed for just one ship.

Other problems raised by Melamud included the time and the costs. The passage of a ship through the Suez Canal does not require any special actions and takes two to three hours. Transferring containers via train, on the other hand, requires off-loading and reloading in Eilat and Ashdod, which could take a few days. All this unloading, transporting and reloading is also very expensive.

Melamud also noted that shipping costs from the Far East via the Suez Canal have dropped significantly in recent years, although they are still quite high. Melamud believes that the only way to compete with the Suez Canal is via cooperation agreements with the big shipping companies around the world, which would agree to the transfer of containers via Eilat. He feels that the decision to build a rail line could be strategically correct if the idea is to develop the Negev. Regardless, he says, the project would have to be heavily subsidized by the government.

Finance Ministry sources told Haaretz that the initial examination of the idea found that it needs to be checked out in more detail, and added that the committee is looking into both the cargo line and the passenger line.