Saving Haifa's Carmelit From Going Under

At its peak, in the 1960s, over 15,000 passengers would use the Carmelit every day, but in recent years the average number has stood at 2,200.

The past two days have seen many inches of rain fall on Haifa. A dark, threatening cloud settled over the mountain, and refused to lift until small rivulets flowed down from the Carmel, via the neighborhoods and roads, into massive seasonal puddles in the lower city.

In the towns around Haifa, the situation is not much better. Pedestrians and commuters waiting at bus stops look particularly glum at this time of year, cursing each time a car drives by and splashes muddy rainwater.

There was only one place in Haifa yesterday where passengers were indifferent to the inclement weather outside: deep inside the tunnels of the Carmelit, Haifa's underground railway, where one cannot tell if there is a storm outside or a heat wave.

The great tragedy of the Carmelit is that there are not enough regular customers who enjoy the benefits of subterranean travel. At its peak, in the 1960s, over 15,000 passengers would use the Carmelit every day, but in recent years the average number has stood at 2,200. At noon yesterday, a train traveling from the Carmel to the lower city carried 10 passengers in cars that have a capacity for 170.

Two weeks ago, Oded Donitz - who, in addition to being a member of the Haifa city council is also chairman of the board of directors of the Carmelit - stood up at a meeting of the council's budgetary committee and asked for the floor. "With annual income from ticket sales of NIS 3 million, and without a government subsidy, the Carmelit is not financially viable," Donitz announced. "Because of the budget crisis, the Carmelit will shut down in July 2005."

The CEO of the Carmelit, Avi Telem, was even more pessimistic, saying that the company "will run out of money by March."

How did it happen that in the same year that construction is beginning on a light railway in Jerusalem, and a decision on a similar project in Tel Aviv is imminent, Haifa's ground-breaking Carmelit - which was 40 years ahead of the other cities - is facing closure?

The answer, as usual, is a mixture of random municipal processes and a series of wrong choices.

The Carmelit began operating in 1959, at a time when the city's mayor, Abba Hushi, was strong enough to push through whatever megalomaniac project he set his heart on. Construction work was done by a French company, which also provided the cars, and within months, Haifa had a short but highly efficient subway: six stations along a 1,850-meter line from the Carmel to the lower city.

In truth, the Carmelit is not a railway at all, but a funicular railway, which uses the technology of an elevator (a cable pulling a car up) and the technology of a railroad (a car on a track).

Donitz, who took over as chairman of the board a year ago, is looking for creative solutions to save the Carmelit. One possible solution, which has been used in the past, is to hand over the running of the Carmelit to the Egged bus cooperative, which should be able to integrate its bus services with the trains.

A spokesman for Egged said yesterday that the issue had been examined and that discussions had been held, but that the parties were no nearer making a decision.

According to the Israel Railways Authority, there has been talk for years of turning the disused tax house, which is close to the last section of the Carmelit track, into the last stop of the Carmelit, thus allowing passengers to go directly from Carmel to Tel Aviv by just changing trains. The plan never came to fruition, however, due to lack of funding.

"If the track was extended by another 200 meters into the lower city, then more people would use the Carmelit to get from the Carmel or Hadar to the railway station," says Donitz.

In the meantime, Donitz is trying his best not to become despondent.

"The Carmelit can be put to dozens of other uses," he says. "On weekends, for example, the tunnels would be perfect for parties. Hundreds of people could be taken down in the tunnels, where the tracks and cables would be covered over and the acoustics are excellent. They could dance the night away without disturbing anyone."