Wiped Off the Map: Railway Plan Skips Arab Towns, Leaves 180,000 Without Transport Solution

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A view from the city of Umm al-Fahm in Wadi Ara, Israel, January 28, 2018.
A view from the city of Umm al-Fahm in Wadi Ara, Israel, January 28, 2018. Credit: Rami Shllush

The plan to run a railway line through Wadi Ara, linking communities along that valley to the national railway system, has been shelved, with an alternative plan being presented by the Transportation Ministry. People living in the mainly Arab communities along the valley, with its population of 180,000, are worried that by being cut off from the railway system they will have no suitable solution to their dire transportation problems.

The disputed stretch lies northeast of Hadera. It was supposed to link the coastal train line from Lod to Hadera, expected to open in eight years, with the Jezreel Valley line. According to the plan that was shelved, the line would have passed from the ’Iron Junction to towns in Wadi Ara – Umm al Fahm and Ar’ara – before reaching Megiddo, west of Afula, where it would link up with the Jezreel Valley line. The committee dealing with overland transportation, which plans railway routes, canceled the plan two weeks ago, to the dismay of local councils in the area.

The new proposed route will lie further north, going through a tunnel before joining the Jezreel Valley line between Kfar Yehoshua and Kfar Baruch. This decision still needs final approval by the National Planning and Building Council, which will probably be given in a few weeks. Representatives from towns in the area argue that the decision will perpetuate the break between the area and the coast, and thus, too, with the center, Haifa and Afula.

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The Wadi Ara area has been suffering from heavy congestion for years, especially at its entry and exit points. There is also insufficient public transportation to meet the needs of people living there.

According to an earlier decision, cancelling the railway line requires presentation of an alternative solution to the area’s problems. Such a document was indeed presented at the committee meeting two weeks ago, but it was vague and very preliminary and theoretical, with no information regarding what it would actually look like on the ground, or whether there would be new bus lanes, a light rail system or express buses.

“A train is a significant source of life” says Mudar Younis, the head of Ar’ara’s local council. “There were deliberations around the exact route, since it passed close to some houses, with concerns about the transport of hazardous materials as well. Alternate plans relying on buses won’t solve the problem – congestion is high and fast buses won’t stop inside towns along the way.”

The area is populated by relatively poor communities, with a critical need to link it to public transportation in order to develop the area and allow people living there to escape their dire situation.

According to Central Bureau of Statistics numbers from 2008 (the latest available), 25 percent of the area’s residents work in central Israel, 19 percent work in the north, and 18 percent in the Hadera-Pardes Hanna area, meaning that 60 percent of breadwinners need daily transportation outside the area. “The shortage is suffocating, with implications for all areas of life” says a social activist.

Local authorities and the ’Iron local council believe that the solution offered by the transportation ministry is ineffective, and that train service is vital. Such service will also be an economic resource, affecting the area’s image, industry and development, in addition to solving transportation needs.

Residents are open to alternatives such as a light rail system, with its higher frequency and increased number of stations. However, this is not yet on the table, despite the previous plan’s cancellation.

Planning the railway line through the valley began two decades ago, and was approved by the relevant authorities. Some sections were planned as elevated lines, others going through tunnels. The committee says the new plan calls for a more direct line, easier to build. Topographical problems, which would have required deep underground stations, were cited as one reason for the change in plan. The proximity to built-up areas or private plots was another reason, since residents’ opposition would have caused delays and high costs.

Some sources said that the plan would have not solved the problems in the area in any case, since it included only two stations, which would not have met the needs of local residents. Due to traffic congestion, more stations, situated closer to the towns along the route, would have been required.

The Transportation Ministry said that “since Yisrael Katz assumed his post as transportation minister, the plan was to build the more northerly route. Other solutions will be found for Wadi Ara, other than a heavy train which is unsuitable for the densely-populated area.”

The Planning Authority at the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development said that it recognizes the importance of developing public transportation through the area. “We’ve seen plans for a designated bus lane along the main highway there, and for a future light rail system. A regular train line would not solve the problem, with its underground route, few stations and low accessibility. Approving the new plan will be conditional on creating a fast bus lane through Wadi Ara.”

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