First Class, on the Train From Haifa to Damascus

In 1906, tourists could buy a package trip to the Holy Land that included a first-class ticket on the Valley Train. The historic line stopped running in 1951. What will it take to bring it back?

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The remains of the Gesher station. It was known as 'the lowest train station in the world.'
The remains of the Gesher station. It was known as 'the lowest train station in the world.'Credit: Gil Eliyahu
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

On the Valley Train, on the route from Haifa to Beit She’an, I read the beautiful poem of Tuvya Reubner “Agadat Stav” (An Autumn Legend): “Who knows how much longer we will see / This beautiful valley / Ochre and orange and green and brown, azure / With white clouds and a few black ones too.”

The poem later describes the trip on the new Jezreel Valley Train “after a 70-year rest.” The trip this week was pleasant and the valley on the other side of the train window was incredibly beautiful. I only regretted that the grime, which always covers the windows and their worn glass, made it hard to discern the beauty of the valley.

The train ride from Haifa to Beit She’an took 48 minutes and several stops. In the end, 24 passengers got off, marched to the large parking lot and drove away either in cars or buses. The station is five kilometers (3.1 miles) from the center of town. The station sits in the middle of fish ponds, and while the view may be amazing, the location poses a challenge to passengers. Because I wanted to get to Lake Kinneret I was forced to wait for a ride.

A wonderful view of the 130-meter-long Al-Hamma Bridge that was built in 1904 over a channel of the Yarmouk River. It was blown up by Palmach fighters on the Night of the Bridges.Credit: Gil Eliyahu

This prompts the big question: Why were the Ottoman Turks wise enough 120 years ago to build a train that continued on from Beit She’an north to Tzemah (historically called Samakh)? Why isn’t there a train that travels to the shores of the Sea of Galilee today, and from there to Tiberias? Why can’t a edtourist or pilgrim who came to the Holy Land and wants to see where Jesus walked on water get on a train at the airport and travel all the way to the Sea of Galilee? How could tourism promoters a century ago understand these needs, but not the ones working now?

In 1906, the Thomas Cook & Son travel agency began selling package tours of the Holy Land. The company offered a visit that included the train ride to Tzemah on the Valley Train, and from there a trip on the steamship Nordoy to Tiberias and the Christian holy sites at the northern end of the Kinneret. The travel agency offered first-class railroad carriages with comfortable sleeping compartments. How things have changed.

Stations along the historical Valley Train

The historic Valley Train was a branch of the Hejaz Railway, and ran between Haifa and Tzemah, and from there to Daraa in Syria. At that junction, linked up with the main Hejaz rail line from Damascus to Medina, in what is today Saudi Arabia. It took the Turks only eight years to lay the 1,300 kilometers of railroad tracks, with their main goal being to carry Muslim pilgrims from Syria to Mecca. The project was the vision of a single man who was crazy about trains: Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II.

The length of the Valley Railroad branch to Haifa was 87 kilometers, and its tracks were laid over three years, from 1902 to 1905. It was the second rail line in Israel – after the line from Jaffa to Jerusalem. It was a small gauge line, exceptionally narrow at only 105 centimeters between the two rails – which caused quite a lot of trouble later on for those who had to maintain the railroad and make it part of a regional rail network.

The old customs house next to the Gesher station.Credit: Gil Eliyahu

Standard gauge track in Israel – and most of the world, including Europe – is 143.5 centimeters wide. The train continued to operate under the British Mandate too, but was damaged severely during the Night of the Bridges operation in June 1946, when the Haganah blew up the railroad bridges connecting Palestine to neighboring countries. It was further damaged during the War of Independence in 1948, and the line stopped operating completely in 1951.

While the train was in service, it was of tremendous value – it enabled the construction of the Rutenberg Power Station in Naharayim, it transported pipes for the oil pipeline from Iraq to Haifa and it connected the Jezreel Valley and Jordan Valley communities with the center of the country. The most famous example is the “milk train” that brought fresh milk from the cattle sheds in Deganya and other communities to Haifa every morning. That is all gone now. In effect, communities like Deganya, Beit Zera, Afikim, Ashdot Yaakov, Gesher as well as Tiberias and others, which were once close to a convenient transportation line, are further removed from the center than before. With the new Israeli railroad system, it seems that this would be fixed, but it did not happen.

Inside the old train tunnel next to al-Hamma, which is closed to visitors.Credit: Gil Eliahu

In 2003, Transportation Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced the revival of the historic Valley Train. It took 13 years until the old-new line was inaugurated in July 2016, at a cost of 4 billion shekels (over 1.196 billion). In his nine years as transportation minister, Yisrael Katz was the main proponent of the train’s renewal, and the same year that he opened the renewed line, Katz declared that the train would soon reach Tiberias too. His preferred route was for the tracks to fork in Afula, with a line leading to the Poriya area. It didn’t happen.

This week, in response to an inquiry from this writer, MK Katz’s advisor promised to be in touch, and then disappeared like the train that is supposedly on the horizon. Nor was I able to get an answer from current Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli. Several inquiries to the Transportation Ministry regarding the plans for or chances of the train line reaching Tzemah from Beit She’an, or going from Afula to Tiberias, went unanswered.

The remains of the Hejaz rail brick bridge over the river of Nahal Tavor.Credit: Gil Eliyahu

A glorious past

From the Beit She’an station, photographer Gil Eliahu and I drove along the route of the historic Valley Train. The distance from Beit She’an to Tzemah is about 30 kilometers. Several of the beautiful bridges built by the Truks are still standing along the railroad route. Among the most notable are the bridge that crosses the Issachar Stream about eight kilometers north of Beit She’an and the imposing bridge that crosses the Tavor Stream, seven kilometers further north. The bridge over the Jordan River at the site of the Old Bridge, 10 kilometers south of Tzemah makes the biggest impression.

The Gesher station was the sixth of the eight original stations along the track. It was known as “the lowest train station in the world” and mainly served the residents of Menahemia and Kibbutz Gesher. The old Gesher courtyard is now an interesting tourist attraction with a museum about the site’s historical heritage. It is situated right by the riverbank, in the place where Kibbutz Gesher was located for 10 years, from 1939 through the end of the War of Independence. The abandoned courtyard of the kibbutz’s founders has been reconstructed and recognized as a heritage site by the Council for Conservation of Heritage Sites in Israel.

The train station in Tzemah.Credit: Gil Eliyahu

The uniqueness of the place lies in its location – close to the three bridges over the Jordan River. The oldest is a renovated stone bridge that is 700 years old. The Valley Train used to cross the Jordan River here on the way from Beit She’an to Tzemah and northward. The borders, which today seem like a law of nature, were different. You can no longer cross the bridge, which ends in Jordanian territory.

Yaakov Ziv, a member of Kibbutz Gesher and the head of the organization that operates the site, and Shahar Katz, who oversees tours at the site, open a gate for us and we follow them eastward down the path to the three bridges. The Ottoman-era Valley Train bridge was built here in 1904; it is the southernmost of the three. Five of its stone arches are still standing. At one of the points – where the bridge was blown up – it is supported by wooden beams. Three train cars have been placed there as a testament to the past. A short distance away are the recreated Mamluk Khan caravanserai from the 14th century, and the customs house. There is also an explanation about the impressive train station in nearby Naharayim.

The Island of Peace in Naharayim, where the Jordan and Yarmouk Rivers meet, is five kilometers north of the bridge. On the Israeli side, the Naharayim site is an interesting and well-maintained attraction. It gives one a good grasp of the magnitude of the plant built by Rutenberg, and offers a unique view of the valley and of the intersection of the Jordan River flowing from the north and the Yarmouk River flowing from the east. On its way north, the train also crossed here, at the spot where one side is now in Israel and the other is on the Island of Peace, control of which was returned to Jordan in 2019.

The Island of Peace in Naharayim, where the Jordan and Yarmouk Rivers meet, is five kilometers north of the bridge.Credit: Gil Eliyahu

Shai Hadar, manager of the Naharayim site, gives us a detailed explanation of the site, and points out the remnants of the railroad track on the banks of the Jordan River near the point where the two rivers meet. “A bridge once passed right here, and the Valley Train crossed the river on it on its way to Tzemah,” Hadar tells us. Then he shares his hopes and dreams for a bright future for this place – he sincerely believes it will be restored, and that the bridge will be rebuilt and that, believe it or not, a train will run here once more.

From there we drove seven kilometers north from Naharayim to Tzemah. The railroad passed here to the east of Highway 90. The restored train station compound in Tzemah is now part of the Kinneret Academic College campus. In recent years, this site has had the most impressive restoration along the Valley Train route. The buildings that were part of the station have been finely restored; the structure that was once a water tower has been turned into a visitors’ center. At Tzemah, the main emphasis is on the station’s historical importance as a topographical and political “endpoint.” Exhibits explain the train’s contribution to the development of northern Israel and the Jordan Valley.

In April of this year, a new and entertaining exhibit was opened – the “aerial railcar.” Ziv Ofir, the college’s director of campus development, has devoted a lot of time to the restoration of the Tzemah railway station. He tells us all about the wonders of this peculiar form of transportation. The aerial railcar was developed in 1918 by Baruch Katinka (a military engineer who was the technical supervisor of the Hejaz Railway and known as a railroad genius) for the German Air Force camp in the Jezreel Valley.

An arch with a portrait of Hussein, the late King of Jordan, at the Island of Peace in Naharayim.Credit: Gil Eliyahu

Katinka mounted part of a plane fuselage and a propeller on a freight car. On a good day, he could get it to go up to 100 kilometers per hour (62 mph). The German pilots dubbed it the “Phoenician Bathhouse Express.” The aerial railcar, which “flew” over the Valley Train railroad tracks, enabled the German pilots to travel quickly from their base near Merhavia to Haifa and go out on the town. The model that was installed a couple of months ago in Tzemah is an exact replica of the first version of this unusual vehicle.

From Tzemah we drove 10 kilometers east to Al-Hamma, where, next to the entrance to the bathhouse, you can still see the remnants of the train station from which the line continued on to Syria. At the top of the mountain, there is a wonderful view of the 130-meter-long Al-Hamma Bridge that was built in 1904 over a channel of the Yarmouk River, as part of the western branch of the Hejaz Railway. It was blown up by Palmach fighters on the Night of the Bridges, and was never restored.

Making the dream a reality

Everyone I spoke with at Gesher, Naharayim and Tzemah struck me as dreamers. They talked about the historic train with love mingled with nostalgia. Their eyes sparkled as they enumerated all its wonders. At every station, I was told that there was one person in particular that “I just had to talk to.”

Prof. Shlomo Maayan, director of the Infectious Disease Division at Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, refers to the train project he has been promoting for the past 14 years as “a hobby that tends to overcome me.” Hearing him discuss the train is fascinating, and makes me realize beyond any doubt that the Valley Train has a way of attracting and seducing dreamers.

Maayan began dedicating himself to the idea of reviving travel on the Valley Train after the death of his daughter Lily from an illness. “For me, a connection developed between my personal loss and the train,” he says. “My vision is to see a steam locomotive traveling through the Jordan Valley.

To a lot of people, this sounds like a pipe dream, but I see it as a practical project that captivates the imagination.” His search for a steam engine that would suit the revived railroad took him to the Greek Peloponnesians. “In a little village, I found three old wrecks. I chose the most beautiful engine – 30 tons of rust that was manufactured in Germany in 1929.”

The station at Naharayim, which is under Jordanian control nowadays.Credit: Gil Eliyahu

Getting approval for the engine to be released from Greece, with the help of journalist Jean Cohen, “took a huge effort that went on for two years,” he says. “Four years ago, we managed to move it to a special workshop in Romania that specializes in restoring steam engines, and we made a business plan for four kilometers of travel on the route of the Hejaz Railway.

We examined the possibility of operating it from Kibbutz Gesher south to Nahal Tavor. Then we thought about the station in Tzemah and about collaborating with the Council for the Conservation of Heritage Sites in Israel. I liked the fact that the station is inside the college campus. Ofir Ziv became a true partner. We’re currently looking for funding to restore the engine and to lay the track. The restoration will cost about 4 million shekels, and I estimate that laying the track will cost another 36 million shekels.”

The latest idea Maayan is working on is to find a path to cooperation with Jordan and Turkey on the project. The dream is for the neighboring Hashemite Kingdom to allow the train to run via the Island of Peace from Naharayim south on the existing track. “It will require building one bridge in Naharayim and restoring the Turkish bridge opposite Kibbutz Gesher. Since it is a major historic project from the Ottoman Empire, I want to try to interest the Turks in restoring part of the Hejaz Railway in the Jordan Valley, in light of the warming relations since last year.”

A view of the Yarmouk River, and the remains of the Al-Hamma Bridge that was built in 1904.Credit: Gil Eliahu

You’re an eccentric optimist.

“People think that I’m Don Quixote. On the other hand – we’re just 40 million shekels away from a very significant project for three countries – Israel, Turkey and Jordan. A multinational project that will tell the story of an important piece of history. We’ve also tried to interest businesspeople and government officials in Israel, to no avail so far. Hopefully we can get them on board, too.”

What sort of experience will a passenger get?

“It will be a historical experience. You’ll get the story of the Hejaz Railway and the Valley Train against the backdrop of the history of the Land of Israel from 1900 onward. You also get the story of the Ottoman Empire and of the Kingdom of Jordan. A marvelous story for young and old.”

Idan Greenbaum, head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, sighs when I ask him why there is no train from Beit She’an to Tzemah. “What the Turks were able to do quickly takes a lot longer in modern day Israel. There is a large gap between deciding and doing. A train to Tzemah does appear in our master plans and there is also a plan to connect Tiberias and Afula, but you need to understand – the transportation infrastructure around Lake Kinneret is in a very sorry state. We are still driving on the road that was paved by Gdud Ha’Avoda” – a socialist group that operated during the 1920s. “Nothing at all has changed with the road, unfortunately, and we intensely feel the effects,” he says.

“In my view, the government should first of all think about a reasonable network of roads for the region. The transportation infrastructure needs a lot of improvement. I wish I could say it will happen with the train, but even now we travel by train from Beit She’an to Haifa and not directly to Tel Aviv. The question is how to bring the valley closer to the center in a way that makes sense, and not just to say there is a train so that we can check that off the list.”

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