Israel Is Planning an ‘Inland Suez Canal’ Across Its Desert. At What Cost?

Israel's planned high-speed train to Eilat: dream or potential environmental train wreck?

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נגב גשרי רכבת 2022
A railway bridge next to ‘En Yorqe‘am.Credit: Tomer Applebaum
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

In theory, it sounds amazing: a high-speed train to Eilat, the country’s southernmost city on the shores of the Red Sea. This was attested to by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his recent Knesset speech enumerating the new government’s goals, in which he described it as a major national project: “The mission is to develop the country’s infrastructures, including developing a high-speed rail that will travel hundreds of kilometers per hour and connect the country from Kiryat Shmona to Eilat.”

In recent years, the planned train to Eilat has been so anticipated that it received the flattering nickname of “the inland Suez Canal.”

But the reality is different, and the plan is a nightmare for those dealing with the environment and nature preservation. The planned route of the train crosses through nature reserves and some of the country’s most attractive hiking trails.

Raya Shourky, director of the Nature and Parks Authority, said it’s hard to analyze what the consequences of the train route would be, as a comprehensive program has not yet been formed, and the project is moving forward in piece-by-piece stages. The authority believes it’s worth reexamining alternatives that have been proposed, and the project needs to strike a balance between the benefits for the public and the preservation of landscapes in the Negev and the uniqueness of the Eilat gulf area. According to the authority’s Southern District director, Gilad Gabbay, the rail line would be devastating to nature preservation and violates decades-long planning for the landscape in the south.

A quick look at the history of plans for a train to Eilat shows that Netanyahu is enamored with the idea. Twenty years ago, he promoted the plan with all his might in his capacity as finance minister, calling it “a convenient and inexpensive alternative to the passage of goods from the Far East to Europe via the Suez Canal and a line for passenger trains.

Runaway train: A railway bridge next to ‘En Yorqe‘am in southern Israel.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

In August 2005, the railway to Eilat was declared a national infrastructure plan. The government of Ehud Olmert canceled it over a lack of economic viability, but Netanyahu continued to promote it. In 2009, as prime minister, he announced the start of a railway project to Eilat. In 2013, the District Planning and Building Committee in the Southern District approved a route connecting Be’er Sheva to Dimona and Eilat. Then came budget cuts, postponements and delays. In June 2020, the district committee approved moving forward with the first section, from Be’er Sheva to Mishor Rotem, but a year later, Avigdor Lieberman, then finance minister, announced that the plan would be halted.

The plan states that the expected cost is 40 billion shekels ($17 billion), which few believe is a realistic sum. The planned length of the line is 260 kilometers, and a very optimistic estimate of the number of passengers is 5 million a year. The equation is simple — the length of one of the lines on the light rail project under construction is 24 kilometers. The cost of its construction is more than 18 billion shekels.

Opponents of the plan point to several problems besides the environmental impact — particularly the price, with 130 million shekels having already been invested in the planning. The planned route is supposed to include more than 60 bridges and five tunnels, plus a long tunnel between Dimona and the Arava Desert, right in the heart of one of the most beautiful and beloved hiking areas in the country. In addition, there is still a lack of clarity regarding the southern part of the tracks. It is assumed that freight trains will not be entering Eilat and that therefore a terminal will be built a few kilometers north of the city. The cargo will thus be transported by trucks from the final station on the line to the port.

The view from Har Hehalaq. The serenity will be lost.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

In an objection to the project, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel states: “We are concerned about the severe harm that will be caused to wildlife, plants and the unique landscapes of the Negev, which will be greatly damaged. A train to Eilat will cross the extraordinary desert landscapes of the Negev ... and change them forever. A railroad track with an endless row of electricity poles will destroy a beautiful and impressive region that hundreds of thousands of people travel in every year.”

In recent years, the Tourism Ministry has spearheaded a program focusing in the south, which includes parks, trails and other sites intended to develop tourism between the Dead Sea and Eilat. Members of the Society for the Protection of Nature say the train will do exactly the opposite by damaging nature and landscapes in those areas.

Tourists visit at a beach in Eilat.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Gilad Gabbay of the Nature and Parks Authority says people are being misled. “They’re doing a bait-and-switch here,” he says. “The public is told, ‘you want to go to Eilat fast and safely, here you go, we will build a high-speed train whose journey will take a little more than two hours.’ But in fact, they are planning a freight railway that is hardly talked about. It is clear to everyone that this is uneconomic, wrong, and geopolitically dangerous. Some will say that the Chinese are being sold another strip of the State of Israel. For us, the Israelis, only environmental harm will come out of this. No one is talking about the fact that these are huge cargo trains, which will work non-stop.”

During a visit to one of the area’s mountains, and surrounded by silence, Gabbay says: “Everything will be lost. Think about the noise pollution, the light pollution, the changes in the landscape, huge freight trains that run here 24 hours a day. It’s unimaginable. ... The tracks will block the passage of animals, and we have not yet said anything about the sensitive coral reef in Eilat, which will of course also be affected by the passage of goods.”

A railway near Mishor Yamin, in southern Israel.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The train has great support in the city of Eilat. The mayor, Eli Lankri, reached an agreement with the previous finance and transportation ministers on continuing to plan the railway route with a budget of 30 million shekels. The municipality appointed Sharon Ben Ezra, who headed the Ramon Airport Administration on behalf of the Israel Airports Authority, as the project’s manager, while continuing working with the National Roads Company to complete the planning.

“The two train lines (passengers and cargo) have tremendous significance for the city of Eilat and for the country as a whole,” Lankri said in response to a request for comment, and said that “this is not a project with a narrow interest that will only serve the residents of the south, but a project of national and international strategic importance, whose fruits and contribution in the fields of tourism, economy, employment and security will be dramatic. I believe that thanks to Eilat’s geographical location and the fact that we have two ports here, sea and air, together with the Abraham Accords in the background, the railway will serve as a land bridge to the Arab world, which will of course make it a valuable national asset.”

The view of Nahal Saif, where the planned railway to Eilat will cut across.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

In a recent conversation with Meir Tzur, head of the Middle Arava Regional Council, he said: “I am in favor of the train because it is a major transportation route. With the help of the railway, it is possible to make the port in Eilat a significant one. Most of all, this will give a tremendous development boost to the Arava and to Eilat. But, in the midst of all this, we are also in favor of preserving the values of nature. We don’t want to create a monster that will destroy the area.”

The Transportation Ministry said that “since the economic examination of the project was conducted many years ago on the basis of previous assumptions, the Transportation Ministry is currently embarking on a new economic examination of the project’s updated configuration.”

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