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Some 20 million passengers rode Israel's trains in 2003 - an increase of 13.3 percent in relation to 2002 and the highest number of rail passengers ever recorded in the country, according to figures released yesterday by Israel Railways' marketing and sales division.

According to the figures, some two million passengers rode the trains in December last year - a 12-percent rise against the figure for December 2002.

Israel Railways chairman Moshe Leon said that with the implementation of approved development plans, for which a sum of NIS 20 billion has been allocated, some 55 million passengers will be using the trains by the end of 2008.

The director-general of Israel Railways, Yossi Snir, attributed the rise in the number of passengers in 2003 to the opening of new lines and stations - in Kfar Sava, Rishon Letzion, Beit Shemesh and Ramle - during the course of the year. These new lines and stations, Snir said, had also contributed toward significantly easing traffic congestion in the center of the country.

The Israel Railways figures show that the marked increase in the number of passengers in December 2003, as opposed to December of the previous year, came from the following lines: Rosh Ha'ayin-Kfar Sava-Tel Aviv - an increase of 69 percent, to some 142,000 passengers; Tel Aviv-Nahariya - an increase of 8 percent, to around 256,000 passengers; Tel Aviv-Haifa - an increase of 5 percent, to some 462,000 passengers; Be'er Sheva-Tel Aviv - an increase of 5 percent, to some 261,000 passengers; and Ashdod-Tel Aviv - an increase of 2 percent, to around 328,000 passengers.

In a year-to-year comparison, 2003 saw significant increases on the following lines: Rosh Ha'ayin-Kfar Sava-Tel Aviv - an increase of 47 percent, to some 1.15 million passengers; Be'er Sheva-Tel Aviv - an increase of 19 percent, to some 2.7 million passengers; Tel Aviv-Nahariya - an increase of 16 percent, to around 2.7 million passengers; Ashdod-Haifa-Nahariya - an increase of 11 percent, to some 1.3 million passengers; Ashdod-Tel Aviv - an increase of 10 percent, to around 3.2 million passengers; Haifa-Tel Aviv - an increase of 8 percent, to some 1.6 million passengers; and Tel Aviv-Haifa - an increase of 4 percent, to around 4.7 million passengers.