Desert Storm Brewing Over Israel's Planned Railway Line to Eilat

Planners are due to decide on one of Israel's biggest infrastructure projects and, as usual, the dispute turns on money - at least NIS 5 billion.

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
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Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

Government planners will be deciding within a few weeks how one of Israel’s biggest-ever infrastructure projects will affect one of the country’s most important and unique natural regions. Green-minded organizations argue that a sectionof the planned railway line to Eilat will have a serious impact on the landscape, flora and fauna. They would like the section to run mostly through tunnels which would add at least NIS 5 billion to the railway’s NIS 30 billion projected cost.

The Southern District Planning Committee is due to decide what route the railway to Eilat will take as it passes east of Dimona toward the Arava. It has to make the choice of whether to run the section in question overland, or spend the extra money on building the underground system.

The rail line connecting Be’er Sheva to Eilat will be 262 kilometers long and will be built by the Israel National Roads Company. It is scheduled to be completed by the end of the decade, though it is likely to take longer.

The new line is supposed to take passengers between Tel Aviv and Eilat in two hours and five minutes, in rail cars traveling up to 250 kilometers an hour.

The national roads company is planning the project with D.E.L. Engineering and is consulting with ecologists. The company drew up alternative routes for the tracks and conducted environmental impact studies for each of them.

The planning committee convened earlier this month to debate the various alternatives. During the debate, it emerged that there was general agreement on the track route between Be’er Sheva and the Yamin Plain, east of Dimona. Similarly, there was wide agreement on most issues regarding the southernmost length of track, which runs from the Hatzeva area to Eilat, though some changes were made to avoid harming certain sensitive areas, such as the Samar sand dunes.

The primary dispute relates to the middle section of the track between the Yamin Plain and Hatzeva. In this section, the train is meant to travel from the hilly section of the Negev toward the Arava. It is also meant to serve the phosphate plants in the Zin Valley, where today there is a length of track for a cargo train that enters the valley and transports the phosphates to the factories.

Under the roads company plan, the passenger train will run through an 8.5-kilometer tunnel from the Yamin Plain eastward. After emerging from the tunnel, it will link up with the freight train tracks that now go through the Zin Valley, which will be expanded and upgraded. Tracks for both trains will be built at the same time, moving eastward toward the Arava Road, and will then together move southward, toward Eilat.

The planned railway line to Eilat.
Sand cats, indigent to the region, all but went extinct and are being reinstated.
The resort city of Eilat.
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The planned railway line to Eilat.
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Sand cats, indigent to the region, all but went extinct and are being reinstated.Credit: Alex Levac
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The resort city of Eilat.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Both the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority say this route will cause extensive ecological damage, block the paths of animals and the flow of streams, and totally alter the landscape, which is also popular with hikers.

“Because of the topography, in some of the open spaces the track will go over ramparts and bridges that will cause great environmental and landscape damage, both during construction and once the train is running,” says an Environmental Protection Ministry document on the issue. “It will run through craters, the Ein Yahav Nature Reserve, the Yamin Plain and Ein Akrabim. It will cross numerous streambeds, including the Saif stream.”

According to Gilad Gabai, deputy director of the nature authority’s southern district, the extensive damage projected by this plan led the agency to conduct its own survey and propose an alternative.

The greens’ alternative also starts near the Yamin Plain but runs more sharply south through two tunnels totaling 27 kilometers, with a bridge linking the tunnels. Both the passenger and freight trains would use this route, which will have short branches serving the factories in the Zin Valley.

“The advantage of our alternative is that it shortens the rail track by dozens of kilometers and prevents enormous ecological damage to one of the most important nature reserves,” said Gabai. “It also allows for the dismantling of the current cargo line within the Zin Valley.”

But the roads company notes that the green groups’ alternative would cost an additional NIS 5 billion for building the lengthier tunnels. Moreover, trying to merge the cargo and passenger lines would severely reduce the capacity of the trains, since it would be impossible for both operational and safety reasons to run both types of trains through the tunnels at the same time. The result would seriously undermine the benefits the train project is meant to bring.

According to the roads company, its alternative significantly reduces the impact on the environment and the landscape because its route will run parallel to most of the Saif stream, crossing it at only one spot.

The roads company said it plans to use bridges and culverts that would allow for animals to cross and water to flow freely under the trains. When confronted with the fact that most of the train route would be gated, which would block the movement of both animals and hikers, the company said, “We are examining different types of fencing that will at least allow small animals to pass. We can also plan the fencing such that it will redirect animals to those spots where there are bridges or culverts.”

While the Interior Ministry had expected a decision at this month’s meeting, it acceded to the environment ministry’s request for more time to examine the various alternatives.

The green groups understand that the cost issue will be decisive, but believe their proposal still has merit.

“We argue that one must weigh everything for example, the damage to tourism if our proposal is rejected,” said Gabai. “What we’re suggesting unites infrastructures, reduces travel time and will save on the operating and maintenance cost for a section dozens of kilometers long. If one takes everything into account, on such a big project we don’t think the difference in cost is so significant.”

The indigenous flora and fauna of the Negev could suffer from heavy infrastructure works and the high-speed trains hurtling through the desert.Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz



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