The Israel Nature and Parks Authority says the plan to build a railway line to Eilat will be unprofitable economically and cause billions of shekels of damage to the national economy.
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Its comments come in a new report it has compiled ahead of meetings next week by planning committees on the final route of the train line to Israel’s southernmost city.
The decision to build a passenger and cargo railway to Eilat was made by the government two years ago, determining that the decision was a strategic one meant to turn Israel into a land bridge for the transport of goods to Europe and to improve access to Eilat.
As a result of that decision, the Israel National Roads Company is now completing plans on a double-track cargo and passenger railway that will link the Arava and Eilat with central Israel via Be’er Sheva. The project has an estimated cost of tens of billions of shekels. The plan includes construction of a channel to be plied by large cargo ships from the Gulf of Eilat to a pier, from which the cargo will be loaded onto trains.
INPA, which is a government agency, has recently completed an economic feasibility study that it commissioned from Prof. Ezra Sadan. The economist concluded in no uncertain terms that profits from the project will “not cover the cost of the investment in the railway, and will certainly not cover the overall costs of operation. Thus it will cause billions in damage.”
Sadan’s feasibility study included the possible scenario of the entire project being implemented by a Chinese company, which would make it cheaper − a scenario he called “the Chinese dream.”
Sadan determined that, even in that case, the railway would have to bring in $280 million in profits for 40 years. To reach such profit levels, Eilat would have to more than double its number of hotel rooms. Sadan does not forecast a growth in tourism that would justify this.
Sadan also studied the idea of Israel serving as a land bridge for cargo to Europe, concluding that Israel could not offer the quality and price of service now offered by Egypt via the Suez Canal and Port Said. However, he said, a slower, single track railway to carry goods imported from the Far East for Israel’s domestic use, and to bring minerals mined in the Negev for export to Eilat, could be worthwhile.
According to transportation planning expert Prof. Eran Feitelson, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Eilat railway will be even less economically viable if the high cost to the environment is taken into consideration, because the railway is set to pass through ecologically sensitive areas.
Feitelson said the impact of the project on the Egyptians should also be gauged. “For them, the Suez Canal is an essential artery for their economic survival, and we are trying to create a threat to this artery.”
With regard to the Chinese option, Feitelson said it “would mean placing a strategically important project in the hands of another country that would both implement it and run it.”
The southern district planning and building committee, and the committee of planners of the railway’s national master plan, are set to meet this week to discuss the train route, particularly the segment between Dimona and the Arava.
The committees are not expected to deal with the justification for the plan as a whole, but rather to determine the route that will cause the least environmental damage and which is also economically viable.
The Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to a request for comment on the suggested economic infeasibility of the train plan.