The Carmelit's Last Chance for Salvation

The rain poured down in Haifa two weeks ago, with no end in sight. The brake lights in the streets seemed to draw blurry red lines in the heavy traffic and the puddles posed a real danger to people waiting for the bus.

On such rainy days, the Carmelit subway could have been a refuge for residents. The warm air emanating from the Sollel Boneh station in Hadar and the speedy eight-minute trip from the lower city to the Carmel would have been enough to draw passengers. However, on the afternoon of that rainy Thursday two weeks ago, the Carmelit was a "private train" for all nine passengers who boarded it.

The number of passengers on the Carmelit stands at about only 2,000 a day. In its glory days, in the 1960s, there were about 15,000 a day. The reason is that the Carmelit goes "from nowhere to nowhere": The neighborhoods through which it passes, from Paris Square to Carmel Center through the Hadar and Upper Hadar neighborhoods are no longer central. Even the government complex built in the lower city did not draw passengers. Now, with the inauguration of the Metronit (Bus Rapid Transit system), whose terminals will be adjacent to the Carmelit stations in Hadar, hopes for an increase in the number of passengers have once again risen.

Doron Magid, the CEO of the Yefe Nof Company, which is responsible for the planning and operation of Metronit, says that the Metronit will more than double the number of train passengers in the first phase.

Magid says a Carmel resident who wants to reach the outlying Haifa bayside suburbs will travel on the Carmelit to the lower city, where he will (with the same ticket) board the Metronit to get to his final destination. "The physical proximity of the stations and the joint ticketing will make the Carmelit a part of a public transit system, of which there is no better choice," says Magid. "No one will be able to compete with the Carmelit and its accessibility, without the traffic jams."

Magid adds that an initiative is currently taking shape for cooperation between the Carmelit and the Metronit: The Egged bus cooperative will charge the fare at the entrance to the Carmelit and the Transportation and Finance Ministries will compensate the Carmelit company for any losses of revenue. In this way, he says, it will be possible to reduce the cost of the trips.

The Carmelit was established at the end of the 1960s and traveled 1,850 meters with stops at six stations. It comprised four cars with a capacity of about 170 passengers; it was pulled by a cable from the uppermost station at Carmel center. At the start of the 1980s, there was a decline in the number of passengers, and in 1986, the company decided to shut down the train service. In 1992, it was re-inaugurated along the same route, but the passengers did not really return.

"It seems very strange to me that people aren't riding the Carmelit," says Kamal Oudeh, who works in a warehouse in the lower city and lives in the Kababir neighborhood. "In my opinion, it isn't true that it goes from nowhere to nowhere. I also thought so until there was a period when I had to give up the car to my wife and travel to work on public transportation," he said. Oudeh says one trip on the Carmelit sufficed to convince him that "this is the way to go. Ten minutes and I'm at work. Ten minutes and I'm at home. Now we have two cars at home and I'm still riding the Carmelit," he says.

In recent years, there have been many attempts to continue the Carmelit line. Vacation packages started to include the Carmelit as an added attraction in the city.

"The budget for the Carmelit is NIS 5 million (from ticket sales and a municipal subsidy - F.E.), with security costs coming to NIS 900,000," says Carmelit directorate chairman Oded Donitz.

According to Donitz, the Transportation Ministry is refusing to subsidize the Carmelit the way it has subsidized other companies; this is because in the past, an agreement was signed stipulating that the ministry would pay the loans for rebuilding the train and the Carmelit would relinquish the subsidy. At the moment, says Donitz, they are preparing a tender that will examine the feasibility of extending the Carmelit route to the University of Haifa and other places in the city. However, transportation experts believe that the cost of the plan is liable to amount to hundreds of millions of dollars, which would render the plan unrealistic. In a nutshell, the Metronit remains the Carmelit's last chance for salvation.

Attempts to revive the Carmelit - from galleries that have opened in various stations to weird suggestions like holding parties for young people on weekends in the tunnels - have all failed. The Carmelit's greatest success was in fact during the Second Lebanon War, when the underground stations served as shelters and activity centers for children. If it remains a barren wilderness, such will be its destiny.