Is the Eilat Train Really Setting Off This Time?

Foreign consultants and ministry promises suggest so

The train to Eilat is getting closer all the time. In the coming days, a delegation of U.S. experts, in Israel for a week, will present its report on the matter to senior officials of the Finance and Transportation Ministries. The report is expected to find the Eilat line to be economically justified.

If Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's enthusiasm is any indication, this train is well on its way. In contrast, some sources in the transportation sector call the Eilat line a huge mistake. "The plan has been criticized repeatedly by experts," they remark. "It is a populist move like so many other components of the Israel Railways five-year plan."

The plan was first raised in 1974 by then-prime minister Golda Meir. It has since been ratified eight times by the cabinet, but has never come to fruition for a variety of reasons. This time, however, it appears something is moving. At the beginning of the year, the finance and transportation ministers announced the beginning of the planning stage. Israel Railways' NIS 20 billion five-year plan budgets a few hundred million shekels for this. The American consultants' report is slated in the coming days.

The project is officially estimated at NIS 4 billion by the Finance and Transportation Ministries, but sources at the ministries actually put the figure higher. Laying the track to Eilat is not budgeted in the five-year plan. It has been suggested that the line be built by private investors using the BOT (Build-Operate-Transfer) financing method, in which the venture is built, maintained and operated for a franchise period by the business sector, after which ownership is transferred to the state.

The first train is slated to roll into Eilat in 2009. To date, track has been laid from Tel Aviv to Be'er Sheva. The following stages involve lines from Be'er Sheva to Dimona, on to Nahal Zin in the northern Arava and finally to the Red Sea resort of Eilat. The new track will be suitable for trains that travel at speeds of up to 200 kilometers per hour. The Tel Aviv-Be'er Sheva track will be upgraded later to support these faster trains.

Travel time from Tel Aviv to Eilat will be three and half hours. The line will start out serving only cargo trains, as surveys do not indicate economic feasibility in operating a passenger line to Eilat. Planners hope that connecting the Eilat and Ashdod ports via rail will provide competition for goods that currently are shipped via the Suez Canal.

Sources in the sector doubt that likelihood, saying that the shipping costs as well as loading and unloading the cargo in both ports would cost twice as much as Suez shipping costs. "The working assumptions on which the experts rely, are erroneous," they say. "Based on those assumptions, they are touting empty presentations. Unfortunately, politics are stronger than the professionals."