We Walked to Jerusalem on 'One of the Most Beautiful Train Routes in the World'

30 years after it was built, the old railroad track to Jerusalem stands deserted. We took the chance to hike along it

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Tracks on the old rail line to Jerusalem.
Tracks on the old rail line to Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

Two parallel metal tracks wind along the scenic bends of the Sorek and Refaim small rivers, sketching shapes into the landscape. Total quiet prevails along the path of the old railroad to Jerusalem. The last train came through here two years ago.

Most of the route, which is now 130 years old, is far removed from any highways. The wadis – river beds that have water only part of the year – are still green. Occasionally, you can see red and yellow wildflowers by the tracks. The thickets of plant growth make it difficult to see very far.

The silence is wonderful, only countered by the stench from the water. Waste water from Jerusalem is treated at a purification plant, but the smell hangs in the air and it’s difficult to ignore.

Tracks on the old rail line to Jerusalem, surrounded by trees. The train was never considered fastest route to the capital. But it was always the beautiful route.Credit: Emil Salman

On the two stretches that I hiked this week along the railroad tracks, south and north of the Refaim bridge off of Route 386, the strongest sensation was of being cut off. The knowledge that no train was about to pass in the foreseeable future – if ever – made a difference. But walking was more relaxed. Nothing was going to happen.

On a monotonous walk on a hot day, it’s easy to get absorbed in memories. As a boy and as an adult, I have traveled on the train to Jerusalem. The landscape was spectacular. The twists of the track and the energy of the locomotive on its ascent to Jerusalem gave the trip a flavor of adventure.

The most prominent feeling that I remember is a sense of disorientation. The train made sharp turns to the right and left and then again to the right as if it were in a maze. Unlike the main highway to Jerusalem, where every turn is well-known and laden with history and memories and people and places, the trip by train was like a voyage in a foreign country, green and nearly empty.

The Sorek station, damaged by the most recent repairs in 2003.Credit: Emil Salman

It felt like an unfamiliar space existing between the highways. Here and there, houses were visible among the vegetation. For a moment, we passed an abandoned train station, and then we were in Jerusalem. It was a wonderful journey. The train was never considered fastest route to the capital. But it was always the beautiful route.

When I spoke this week with an Israel Railways employee, he called the old train route to Jerusalem “one of the most beautiful in the world.” I nodded. Nostalgia makes us exaggerate.

Six hours to Jerusalem

The work involved in building the old railway line, at the initiative notable Jerusalemite Yosef Navon, began in March of 1890. The line was dedicated two and a half years later. The route went from Jaffa on the coast, to what is now Harakevet Street in Tel Aviv and then followed the Ayalon River to Lod and Ramle.

From there, it turned east along the Sorek, through the Sorek and Bar Giora stations, where the water in the steam engines of the locomotive was replenished. It then continued to the Jerusalem station, near today’s Khan Theater. The two ends of the route – in Jaffa and Jerusalem – have in recent years been converted into urban parks where in some short stretches, visitors can walk along the route of the old track.

All told, the train trip from Jaffa to Jerusalem traversed 87 kilometers (54 miles) of track over 176 bridges and dozens of twists and turns. By contrast, the current rail line between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem is 57 kilometers long, which includes nine bridges of a combined length of 3 kilometers and five tunnels of a combined 19 kilometers. And the trip now takes 28 minutes.

The old winding route along the small Sorek river made it possible for the old train to ascend from sea level to the Jerusalem Hills at a moderate pace. When the train was inaugurated, the trip took between four and six hours. In the years before the route was abandoned, it took about an hour and a half. The train operated almost continuously until 1998. Then, due to numerous technical malfunctions, the decision was made to shut it down.

Visitors walk on the abandoned train tracks in the Bar Giora area, located between Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem.

Five years after it ceased operations, in a move that today appears bizarre, the old track was renovated at a monumental cost of half a billion shekels ($152 million at current exchange rates). The eastern portion of the route – the 36 kilometers between Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem – was returned to service. Bar Giora became an operations center, and two new stations were built in southern Jerusalem.

The old train route runs along nature reserves near the Sorek In the course of the work on the tracks 20 years ago, trees in the natural scrub brush were uprooted, the stream beds were damaged and historic structures such as the train stations at Beit Shemesh and Battir and 100-year-old bridges were demolished.

Train travel along the eastern stretch was resumed in 2003, but the long travel time meant that it wasn’t used by the wider public. In March 2020, the Beit Shemesh-Jerusalem service was halted due to COVID-19 restrictions and never resumed. Four years ago, when the new rail line between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem was inaugurated, I wrote about possible uses of the old track.

The Beit Shemesh-Jerusalem service was still operating at the time. The well-being of the residents of the two cities was justifiably the priority, but things have changed entirely. Over the past two years, there has been no service on the old track. It’s maintained but totally unused, and that appears to be how it will remain.

The area where the former Bar Giora train station once stood. Credit: Emil Salman

Israel Railways issued a statement this week that it doesn’t plan to make commercial use of the track. The Transportation Ministry issued a similar response to a request for comment. When the two entities were asked about future plans, they replied: “We are considering several options, including the tourism-related option.”

And they made it clear that Israel Railways continues to maintain the track. That means investing in cleaning, as well as maintaining signaling on the track and safety on the inactive route. In practice, that also means that they are leaving open the option of reactivating it.

No chance service will resume

What should be future of the rail track be? And more generally, what use should be put to the strip of territory that it has created? Initially, a decision must be made on whether it should be used for train traffic or be turned over for other purposes, such as a hiking area or a bicycle path.

From conversations with current and past officials, one comes to the conclusion that the rail company won’t give up on this legacy from the past and permit another entity to convert the route to other uses. So to the extent that it’s up to Israel Railways, the route will remain in its possession and continue to be maintained by it at considerable expense.

Most of the officials who spoke to Haaretz and asked not to be mentioned by name agreed that there is no chance that regular passenger train service would resume on the line between Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem – even though roughly 120,000 people live in Beit Shemesh and another 100,000 in the area around it. The situation on the ground, equipment issues and the low frequency of trains and low passenger demand when the line was in operation will prevent a resumption of regular service, the sources said.

The Beit Shemesh Municipality said it is in favor of any means of transportation that would link its resident to the Jerusalem area or to Tel Aviv. The mayor, Aliza Bloch, has previously sought to determine the feasibility of reviving the line, but was told that there was insufficient tourism potential to do so, the municipality said.

To revive the train, it’s necessary to try to figure out what a “tourist line” would mean. Seven years ago, when development of the new track was moving forward, Israel Railways prepared for the situation it faces now. A detailed plan was prepared by railway employees that contained several proposals.

One of them suggested turning the old line to Jerusalem into an “experience.” During the trip, passengers would become acquainted with the landscapes and the area’s cultural and environmental aspects.

Visitors in the Bar Giora area.

The planned “experiential line” would have been the diametric opposite of the modern line. The latter is fast; the former would be slow. The latter rarely stops; the former would stop frequently. The latter is meant for people who want to reach their destination; the former is for enjoyment. And the experiential train was slated to travel even when the regular trains don’t run.

The goal was to get passengers to feel like pilgrims to Jerusalem on an exciting trip that would be etched in their memories. The experiential train would make many stops in addition to the actual stations. Aside from enjoying the views and activities on the train, passengers would get off to continue their experiences at stations and nearby tourist spots.

The experiences while onboard would include lectures on local history as well as cars set aside for entertainment, food and drinks. There would also be special cars able to accommodate bicycles. During the trip, passengers would become acquainted with the Nahal Sorek Nature Reserve as well as the stories of the pilgrims and warriors who traveled this route in the past. Proposals also included extreme sports, hospitality and horseback riding.

One idea was that bed-and-breakfast facilities could be built along the track. There would also be tourism and heritage sites, vineyards, dairies and riding competitions. The proposal included both daytime and nighttime trips, including on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. It also allowed for private parties on board or at destinations along the route. The hub would be the Bar Giora station, midway between Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem.

Nothing has yet come of these plans. But 10 years are a mere blink of an eye. The Bar Giora station appeared intact this week, though badly neglected. Tall weeds conceal it. The Sorek station west of Beit Shemesh, between Moshav Yesodot and Moshav Tal Shahar, looks even worse.

Isaac Shweky, the Jerusalem region director of the Council for Conservation of Heritage Sites, stresses the importance of preserving the Bar Giora and Sorek stations and noted that the last repairs, done in 2003, actually damaged them. Both buildings have been slated for preservation, he says, and the council has asked the rail company to preserve them. But so far, nothing has happened.

The Sorek station, damaged by the most recent repairs in 2003.Credit: Moshe Gilad

The track itself isn’t slated for preservation site, he adds. The Beit Shemesh station was completely demolished when the new station was built, and the old station in Battir, near the border of the West Bank and very close to the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem, also no longer exists.

Asked about future uses for stations that are restored, Shweky says, “It makes no difference to me what the building is used for. For us, what’s important is the very fact of conservation that’s faithful to the place’s history.

“The Nahal Sorek train station is in terrible shape,” he says. “The railroad company is supposed to preserve it, but I requested conservation funding from the council to speed things up and save the building, which is at real risk. Bar Giora is in better physical condition.”

The documentation files he sent me include full details about the stations’ condition and the possible ways they could be used after they are preserved. Comprehensive, thorough work has been done, but it still hasn’t led to the conservation of these historic buildings.

A weekend in the country

A few years ago, I visited the village of Salers, south of the city of Clermont-Ferrand in France. To the west of it, in a tiny village called Drugeac, I saw a wonderful example of how the old railroad route to Jerusalem could be used. The train track to Salers was abandoned in 1994 after a century of activity. The villagers, on their own initiative, began operating a tourist attraction, which then won the approval and blessing of the French Transportation Ministry. They created 25 simple train cars made of metal that are operated by bicycle pedals and put them on the track. Visitors can pedal down the tracks over 11 kilometers. It’s pure fun. Over the course of an hour and a half, we roared through dark tunnels, whooped with excitement over tall bridges and were in heaven. We rode from Salers to Mauriac. We pedaled as fast as we could, stopping several times to take in the view, and continuing on ahead when the train car behind us approached. This delightful trip costs 22 euros for a car of four people and was worth every cent.

The train track to Salers in France has become a tourist attraction in its own right.Credit: Moshe Gilad

Why not take the most beautiful stretch of the track to Jerusalem, say from Bar Giora to the Biblical Zoo – which is about 14 kilometers – make a small investment and install some similar pedal-cars there? That would preserve the “train” use of the railroad track without operating an actual train there. Anyone who has seen the long lines on Saturday morning at the nearby Kiftzuba amusement park would be ready to bet that a business giving families a chance to pedal along a track that winds between green mountains in the heart of a nature reserve could be a huge hit in Israel, too. Riders could choose whether to travel uphill or downhill.

In a number of places in the world, particularly the U.K., local associations of train aficionados have sprung up to renew the operation of old lines that are no longer in commercial use. Often, these are used on weekends and run by volunteers for nostalgic rides on old steam engines. One appealing example may be seen in a town in the Canterbury region of New Zealand, where a group of volunteers, most of them senior citizens, came together in 2018 to get the Pleasant Point Railroad rolling again. Nearly 100 years after it stopped operating, the line is now back and serving local and foreign tourists. There is no financial aspect to it, but it involves plenty of local pride.

In Mokra Gora, Serbia, a few years ago we rode on a tourist train like this that had been restored to run on a winding track in the mountains. The local tourism association operates the line for tourist purposes only and the trip is very pleasant. You pass by several of the sites where Emir Kusturica filmed “Life is a Miracle,” which is set entirely alongside a railroad track.

There is no line like this in Israel yet. Issues of Shabbat observance and the many other activities of the governmental railroad company have apparently prevented it from establishing one. No other entity aside from Israel Railways is entitled to operate local trains. The British tradition did not strike deep enough roots for that.

Who really needs a railroad track?

If there are no trains running on the tracks, the other possibility is to convert them into hiking or riding paths by flattening them out. A glance at other countries shows that this is the clear trend in many places. More than a thousand old train tracks around the world have been converted to hiking and riding paths in recent years. These paths generally feature a moderate incline and a lengthy route that passes through historic sites.

In Germany, 700 train tracks have been converted into 5,000 kilometers of walking and riding paths. Most of these are in the Rhine Valley region. One main example is the Hunsruck line, which extends for 55 kilomters. A 38-kilometer portion of the line south of the town of Emmelshausen was converted into a bike path.

In Britain, 150 train tracks have been turned into walking paths, and paths for bikes or horseback riding. Over the past 50 years, 12,000 kilometers of train tracks have been closed in the country. To date, 7,000 kilometers of track have been transformed into walking paths.

The High Line in New York.Credit: pisaphotography / Shutterstock.com

These paths are maintained by the local authorities and by associations of volunteers. One such association, the Railway Ramblers, has several hundred members, who help tend the paths and promote hiking along Britian’s abandoned train tracks. The volunteers don’t just pick up trash. They devote a lot of time to research, like into which types of trains and engines once ran on the line. One of the group’s projects is restoring the large stone bridges along tracks.

In the United States, the Rails to Trails Conservancy has nearly a million members. Its aim is to create a national network of paths out of obsolete rail routes. Throughout the U.S. there are 25,000 miles (40,000 kilometers) of former railroad tracks that have been converted into trails. Nine thousand miles more are being developed. The longest trail created so far is the Katy Trail in Missouri, which spans 240 miles. In some cities, urban parks have been created atop old railroad tracks. The most famous is the High Line in New York City, an elevated park that runs for 1.45 miles. A similar example can be found in Paris, in the 12th Arrondissement. Called the Promenade Plantee, it stretches on for 4.7 kilometers. Similar parks have been built in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

This is where a final, important question comes up. A dirt road can currently be found adjacent to a majority of the old track to Jerusalem. This was the service road for the trains. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to preserve the train track and invest most of the effort into turning the dirt road into a comfortable walking or riding path?

Brandi Horton of Rails to Trails said in response to some email queries that her organizion’s most recent study shows that walking trails generate extensive economic activity. In the U.S, this activity yields $34 billion a year. The best way to boost a local economy is to combine tourism trains intended exclusively for leisure with walking trails, she says, citing the 25-mile Lehigh Gorge Trail in Pennsylvania as one good example.

A big advantage of trails that are based on former train tracks is that they are accessible to a wide public, she says. They are easy to get to and can have have many uses – walking, cycling, and roller skating. They can also strengthen the connection between the community and its surroundings by telling the history of the trail and the area. Stations undergo preservation, and many have been turned into museums or community centers, she says, citing the example of a former route that President Abraham Lincoln took to deliver the Gettysburg Address. According to U.S. legislation passed in 1983, unused railroad lines can be preserved and maintained for potential future use if trails are built along the corridor, she also explains.

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