The single-tracked railway linking the Mediterranean coast with Jerusalem should seek world heritage status. Seriously – the fact that the modestly upgraded 19th-century rail infrastructure is still in use should not detract from its historical and aesthetic value.
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Opened in 1892 as a narrow-gauge line under the Turks, converted to a more efficient standard width under the British Mandate, it snakes the 700-meter climb through the steeply afforested Judean Hills along the contours of the narrow Sorek and Refaim valleys without passing through a single tunnel. Far away from the noisy intercity road traffic, the line ascends through stunning scenery otherwise accessible only to the determined hiker or mountain biker.
Though the ride is enjoyable at any time of the year, the best time to go is in the spring, as the wild flowers and vegetation give the scenery a decidedly fresh look. The very sharp bends deep inside the pine forest may be enjoyed to the full if you can get the front seat. With luck, the driver will keep the interconnecting door open, giving you a premier unfolding view over the single-tracked railroad ahead.
This route has not always received generous treatment from the authorities. With competition from improving roads, the rail service was reduced to one train per day in the 1990s and then closed down completely in September 1998. Following repairs, the line reopened seven years later. However, the final stretch - from Jerusalem’s Malha Mall on the edge of the city to the more centrally positioned old railway station - has remained closed. That section can still be enjoyed, as nearly all of the final section has been converted by the city into Jerusalem’s Train Track Park. It just takes a little more effort to get there.
It adds to the fun if you bring your bike. Your perspective changes as you push the park’s six-kilometer route in both directions. Current regulations allow free carriage of bikes on trains during off-peak hours, as long as they are fastened securely in the train’s goods-conveyance section.
But if you’re traveling on foot: Leave the train at the decidedly underused modern Jerusalem Malha terminus, turn right along the main highway without crossing over, and walk for about 10 minutes to a little beyond the large dome of the Jerusalem Arena. Descend the short unpaved track on the right for the six-kilometer walk to the old terminus. The park faithfully follows the old train line along the Refaim Stream (reduced to a trickle during the summer), through the muezzin-strains of the Arab Village of Beit Safafa and its line-side fresh-fruit juice stall, and on to Jerusalem’s southern suburbs. You will be sharing the space with an increasingly denser crowd of strolling families, joggers, serious runners, and cyclists as you get to the stretch on the seam of Bakaa and the German Quarter. Just keep to the walkway – between railway lines freshly filled in with an attractive wooden surface. That will avoid the frustrated annoyance of Rambo-mode cyclists on the adjacent bike-way.
On foot, allow an hour and a half to pass the well-preserved manually-operated train signals into the old railway terminus station. From the outside, the station continues to feature its 16th-century Baroque personality. With its symmetrical snail-flanked and gable-structured top, its façade closely resembles the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Italy. Inside, a small exhibition presents the railways history and development, and if you continue on for a few meters, you should discover the remains of the steam locomotive turntable and the last preserved meters of the line to the buffers. The forlorn-looking passenger coach on the right saw happier days. It is stranded, left to the vagrants and the vandals when the station closed to traffic in 1998.
Return to the old railway station and experience the mingling of two worlds – a past terminus of character on the fringe of the national railway system, and the present venue of quality dining and entertainment in Jerusalem’s increasingly sophisticated southern suburbs. Perhaps a little noisy for a quiet business meeting, but excellent for children who can run hither and thither while the older folks relax and catch up with what’s going on.
As the direct express rail route is due to open in 2017, the future of the present Tel Aviv to Jerusalem railroad is unclear. Until now, the authorities do not seem to have marketed its outstanding scenic qualities (they could clean the carriage windows more frequently for a start). With current programs in the Judean Hills restoring ancient springs and developing more hiking and biking trails, railway halts should be opened to enable easy movement in the area. And perhaps trains might carry an additional observation car so that travelers enjoy the ride to the full.
Allow a comfortable full day for the excursion. Train service to Jerusalem is hourly (peak times) and two-hourly (off-peak times) from Tel Aviv (Savidor, Hashalom, and Hagana) and Beit Shemesh stations. From the old railway station it is a 20 minute walk to the Old City. The old railway station is connected to the Jerusalem Central bus station by buses 4, 7, 8, 18, 21, 71, 72, 74, and 75 to Jaffa Street, and thereon by the westbound Jerusalem light railway.