A planning agency Monday approved a route for a railroad to Eilat that environmentalists charge will cause huge damage to the landscape and ecology of the Negev in the region from Dimona to the northern Arava.
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In so doing, the southern district planning and building committee rejected an alternative route proposed by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority that environmentalists say would significantly reduce the damage.
However, the decision still isn't final: The committee's recommendation will now be sent to the National Planning and Building Council, and if approved by that body, it will then be sent to the cabinet for final approval.
The committee considered several proposals for the section between Dimona and the northern Arava, and chose the one submitted by the government's transportation infrastructure company, Netivei Israel. That plan calls for two separate lines in this section - a passenger train that would go through a relatively short tunnel, and a cargo train that would pass by the Oron phosphate mine. The two lines would then merge into a single parallel track near the Arava.
The nature and parks authority's proposal called for a longer tunnel through which both the passenger and the cargo train would run. Both trains would then emerge at a point farther south than they would under Netivei Israel's proposal.
According to the Interior Ministry, Netivei Israel's plan was adopted because of its "engineering feasibility; lower cost; operational convenience, which enables many trains to travel along this route; minimal safety risks; and limited harm to the environment."
The ministry acknowledged that the nature authority's plan would be better for the environment, but said that "in the view of committee members, this alternative had many disadvantages. This option would reduce the railroad's operational capacity by 30 percent, in that fewer trains would be able to travel the route; increase the financial cost by adding a long tunnel, of more than 13 kilometers; and [create] safety risks due to the tunnels, including ventilation problems, emergency exits and the danger of blockage or accidents."
The nature authority had presented the committee with an expert opinion by a German railway engineer, Prof. Alfred Haack. Haack acknowledged that the authority's proposal was more expensive, but said it also had economic advantages, first and foremost the ability to move the cargo and passenger trains along the same track rather than splitting the track in two, as Netivei Israel proposed. The government, he wrote, must decide how to balance the importance of preserving the area's unique flora, fauna and landscape against the costs of the investment.