By Zafrir Rinat
The authorization stage of Israel Railways' ambitious project to electrify its tracks is nearing completion. The project is designed to make train traffic more efficient and reduce air pollution - but it could also have far-reaching detrimental consequences on the future development of Haifa, one of the railway system's central junctions.
The main concern of urban planning experts and Haifa municipality is that if the electricity infrastructure will be above ground, it will create a dividing line that will choke development of the lower city - a focal point of the city's development - and torpedo attempts to make Haifa more attractive to business and young residents.
The train electrification project, whose total cost nationwide is more than NIS 10 billion, is being pushed through the National Infrastructure Committee and is planned to commence this year. Its implementation will allow trains to be powered by electricity instead of diesel fuel. Trains powered by electricity carry a larger number of cars and travel faster than diesel-powered trains. They also produce less air pollution and less noise.
However, the electricity infrastructure requires erecting a system of poles and cables that create an aesthetic nuisance as well as electromagnetic radiation that requires establishing a buffer zone around the tracks and limits the potential use of land.Haifa municipality: 'Move the train underground'
While in most areas the railway tracks pass at least dozens of meters from residential and commercial centers, in Haifa the train passes directly through the lower part of the city, only a few meters from buildings, forming a kind of buffer zone between the port and the lower city. That is an existing problem; the municipality and planning groups fear that electrifying the tracks will make it a permanent one, obviating any possible solution.
One of Haifa residents' concerns is the danger that exposure to electromagnetic radiation will make the area less attractive than it already is, and harm any chance for urban renewal there. Already, the train tracks, which run along the shoreline, cut off Haifa's beachfront from the rest of the city, making it difficult to reach. The area is neglected and abandoned - but there is broad agreement that it has potential for development of a quarter that combines residential, commercial and leisure projects, similar to other projects in cities around the Mediterranean.
In light of that, a public battle has been waged over the past few months, led by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the municipality, against overhead electricity cables along the open shoreline in southern Haifa. An alternative has been proposed, according to which the current railway tracks would be moved underground. The municipality has even appealed to the Supreme Court against the planning bodies' decision not to authorize the tunnel plan.
In recent weeks, attempts to reach an understanding between the municipality, Israel Railways and SPNI over the electric train project have continued. Environmentalists in the city fear that such an agreement would authorize the tunnel alternative only along the beachfront, thereby scuttling efforts to ensure a similar move for the lower city as well.
The Haifa municipality has, until now, consistently supported the tunnel plan for the lower city, citing the need to develop the area. In recent years the municipality has promoted a plan to erect a campus for students in the area, which received special attention in the long-term development plan that the municipality completed over the past two years. The plan's directives include: "No authorization shall be given for any development, including adding train tracks, electrification of tracks and upgrading the section of track from the Carmel Beach transportation center through the Customs building - except in the context of a plan to lower the existing and the proposed tracks into a tunnel that would allow easy movement between parts of the city and the seafront."
Officials in the municipality noted that erecting a series of electricity poles and cables would make the physical barrier created by the tracks even more permanent, and perpetuate the historical injustice from which residents of the lower city suffer because of the infrastructure laid there. The area does enjoy a central thoroughfare, but although it also creates a barrier between the city and the seafront, unlike the fenced-off route of the train, the street can be crossed at many spots.
"The railway tracks were laid during the British Mandate, according to considerations that made sense at the time," said municipal officials this week. "It would be impossible to lay such a track these days - unless the tracks were to be relocated underground. We support the electrification project, but it cannot cause such harm to Haifa's development plans."
Additionally, said city officials, many other cities around the world, such as Barcelona and Bilbao in Spain, found ways to relocate their trains underground. The officials believe that such a plan could be carried out for a seven-kilometer stretch from the Carmel Beach station in the south of the city to the Customs building.
"The municipality will not allow an above-ground electrification project, without a commitment to carry out an underground project as well," they added.'Burying will not change the situation'
Israel Railways noted this week that the electromagnetic radiation will not change the limitations on land use that already exist because of safety or noise issues.
"We oppose the efforts of the Haifa municipality to connect the question of an underground relocation of the railway tracks in the beach area to the electrification project - a project that is of national importance and is motivated by considerations of transportation, economics and safety," Israel Railways said in a statement.
"The electrification project is set for a route that is authorized and already exists, which does not create a buffer between the city and the seafront but only adds technical equipment that can easily be removed should any future changes be mandated. In addition, the route of the tracks travels mostly along Haganah Road, a wide highway that itself cuts the city off from the sea, and sinking the tracks underground will not change that. The harm to the landscape will be minimal because the poles will be erected 60 meters apart, in an area where there already are electricity and light poles.
"This project will raise the value of the buildings all along the route of the tracks, because the noise and air pollution will be reduced. In any case, during the negotiations between the sides, Israel Railways has declared that it will be prepared to participate in a joint steering committee for an urban assessment of the impact of the tracks on the beach environment and urban spaces, and to generate future planning alternatives to minimize any damage from the tracks to urban spaces and improve access to the beach," it added.
According to an assessment of the alternatives carried out by Israel Railways, the cost of sinking the tracks underground would be more than NIS 3 billion and take more than a decade to complete.
By comparison, electrification can be carried out immediately at a cost of a few tens of millions of shekels. The railway authority plans to expand the tracks in Haifa; it is possible that an underground relocation project would be considered then - but that that is in the long term.