Israel Planning Administration director general Rafael Elmaliach has sent the plans for the Eilat rail link to the National Planning Commission in the hope of moving the project forward, after it has been handed by the Southern Region Committee. Elmaliach believes that the high cost of the rail link, which has prevented progress in the past, should be reconsidered.
He said, “This is a plan of national importance that will create a rail link between the Arava, Eilat and the port. As part of the planning process, the best alternative for the train route will be chosen, in accordance with planning and environmental considerations, through a renewed economic feasibility study and the construction of an inland port.”
The plan requires construction of a railway for passenger trains for the 222 kilometers between Beersheva to Eilat, and a 260 kilometer railway for freight trains with five stations in Dimona (a station that will replace the existing one), Sapir, Yotvata, Ramon Airport and Eilat. In addition to these stations. There will also be stations where the freight cars are connected to the trains, as well as a cargo terminal and depot at the entrance to Eilat. The train will travel at a speed of 250 kilometers per hour.
Waiting since 2020 for a revised project budget
In 2020 when Miri Regev was Minister of Transport, it was agreed to prepare a new accurate evaluation of how much the rail link would cost.
Beyond the planning issues, the obstacle facing the project is its actual implementation. In view of the government’s decisions on the matter, the Planning Administration and the Ministry of Transport are required to finish preparing the plan that has been in the making for years, and the government will decide whether or not to allocate a budget. However, senior government officials have not been enthusiastic about the idea and in the past even froze planning for two years due to the high costs and have seen the priority of investing in transport projects in Israel’s much more densely populated major cities.
The politicians themselves have done nothing to promote the plan except for empty statements and unfulfilled government promises. At the Globes Israel Real Estate Conference held in 2020, the then Minister of Transport Miri Regev said that she would oppose the Metro, and would prefer to invest the money in a rail links to to Eilat and Kiryat Shmona. And now, Regev could return to the Ministry of Transport.
The most recent estimates for the project were prepared in 2013 by the Shasha Center for Strategic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The center then expected that the cost of the project would be NIS 23 billion, but with the addition of rolling stock and a connection to Eilat port – the cost could grow to NIS 40 billion. The document negated the viability of freight and passenger trains, which would be uncompetitive.
The planning institutions believe that a land port in the Arava, on the outskirts of Eilat, could be an economic anchor that might divert only a part of the maritime traffic that is expected to increase in the coming decades. One of the issues facing the planners is the need to connect the port of Eilat with the planned cargo and logistics terminal on the outskirts of the city. The program also has political sensitivity vis-à-vis Egypt, due to possible competition with the Suez Canal.
The forecast for passenger and cargo traffic on the railway was also prepared in 2013, and it was then predicted that in 2020, 3.5 million passengers would travel on the line, which would increase to 6.4 million passengers by 2040. Regarding cargo, the model predicted that the number of vehicles imported to Eilat would increase from 107,000 in 2011 to 147,000 in 2020, and to 266,000 in 2040. However, in 2020, only 97,000 vehicles were imported via Eilat and 109,000 in 2021. In the field of containers, the forecast for 2020 spoke of 20,000 TEU (unit of measurement of containers). At the beginning of the millennium, there was some container traffic in Eilat port, but by 2020 it was still zero.
The northern section of the freight railway from Beersheva to the Rotem railway interchange includes 50 kilometers of existing track, which needs a second track and upgrading. The section has been delayed due to issues related to the transport of hazardous materials, since it passes through urban areas, mainly in Beersheva. This plan has been approved.
The southern part of the rail link includes complex planning issues, as well as environmental issues. In the Yamin-Zin plain, it was decided to promote a tunnel for passenger trains, which was designed to reduce gradients, while freight trains will travel on a track that makes a detour.
A revised forecast will form the basis for a renewed discussion on the route of the rail link and for examination of alternatives, including tunnels, which shortens the route and is less damaging to the environment. Such an estimate has not yet been submitted to the planning administration.
Published by Globes, Israel business news – en.globes.co.il – on November 22, 2022.
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