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Iron horses and chariots of fire

All aboard ... a train about to leave Jerusalem for Jaffa in 1910

At the centenary celebrations of railways in Israel, held at the old Jerusalem station a little belatedly on October 21, 1992, then-Transport Minister Israel Kessar noted drily that the railways had been initiated by the French, built by the Turks, maintained by the British and neglected by the Israelis

Although taking certain liberties with strict historical accuracy, this remark nevertheless went to the heart of Israel Railways' contemporary afflictions. For three decades, successive governments of all political stripes had disdained investing in the national railway system while claiming credit for those occasional improvements that were made. Such improvements were largely confined to the south of the country, where new lines were opened for transporting minerals from the Negev Desert. Efficient and profitable though this traffic is, it does not impinge on public perceptions or traveling habits. 

A modern Israeli engine

Until the last decade of the 20th century, railway passengers had every cause to despair of ever seeing a meaningful upgrade in their traveling conditions. They had endured slow and infrequent services, sitting mostly on shiny plastic-covered seats in dingy carriages that were no more than adequate when first built twenty to thirty years earlier. Air-conditioning on Israel Railways in summer meant opening the windows. Heating in winter simply meant closing them again. Ageing equipment and infrastructure led to increasing delays, inconvenience, and surly frustration loudly expressed.

So, how did this all happen?

In the 19th century Palestine, the Holy Land, was still a fly-blown backwater of the Ottoman Empire. But things were about to change. Already by 1873 Thomas Cook was arranging tours to the East, including at least ten days in Palestine visiting Jaffa, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and a supplemental three-day tour to the Dead Sea, Mar Saba Monastery, the River Jordan and Jericho. Pilgrims were also coming to the country, mainly from Russia, to pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In Europe, means of transport were moving forward rapidly. Railway networks were being built in England and also on the rest of the continent.

But what about Palestine? As early as 1838, Moses Montefiore considered a railway between Jaffa and Jerusalem, and in 1856 became involved in a project together with General Francis Rawdon Chesney and Sir John McNeil. In 1862, Montefiore became chairman of a company registered in London to build a railroad from Jaffa to Jerusalem.

In the late 1850s, Dr. James Barclay, an American, suggested that Jerusalem could be accessible by a short railway from El-Arish, Ashkelon or even better from Gaza. Between 1860 and 1863, Charles Zimpel, a naturalized American who had been born in Prussia, surveyed different routes for a railway to Jerusalem. He spent a year in Constantinople attempting to obtain approval from the Sultan, Abed el-Hamid II, but was unsuccessful. 

Waiting for the train ... a photo of Jaffa Station in the mid to late 1890s

The Jaffa-Jerusalem railway was eventually realized through the efforts of a Jerusalem entrepreneur and a member of one of the oldest Jerusalem Sephardi families. Joseph Navon was a wealthy Jerusalemite who was also a citizen of the Ottoman Empire. A permit was granted on October 28, 1888, after Navon paid a deposit of 5000 Turkish lira (around 12.8 million shekels in today's money) and an agreement for no further claims for financial guarantees. The route that Navon chose was similar to that originally proposed by Zimpel some twenty years earlier. The concession granted to Navon was for 71 years, to include the Jaffa-Jerusalem line with extensions to Gaza and Nablus. Financial difficulties forced Navon to turn to the French for investment, and on December 29, 1889, the "Company of the Ottoman Railroad from Jaffa to Jerusalem and Extensions" was founded. The construction was overseen by Swiss engineer Gerold Eberhard, and a Franco-Belgian firm was responsible for the provision of machinery, rails and other materials. The first locomotives were supplied by the Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia, an American company founded in 1825.

The first train from Jaffa arrived in Jerusalem at 10 am on Saturday train from Jaffa to Jerusalem Saturday, August 27, 1892. The official opening of the line took place one month later, on Monday September 26, in the presence of diplomats and dignitaries.

The next stage in the development of the railways in Israel was the building of Rakevet Ha'emek (The Valley Railway). The original concession from the Syria-Ottoman Railway for the line from Haifa was granted in September 1891 to a Lebanese Christian businessman, Joseph Elias, and partnered by Robert Pilling, a British entrepreneur. After many financial difficulties, great nonchalance in its construction, Turkish sabotage and bureaucratic delays, the line from Haifa to Beit Shean was finally opened on January 14, 1904; from Beit Shean to Jisr el-Majami (Gesher) on May 27 that year, and from Jisr el-Majami to Mezerib in Syria on October 15, 1905. The line then continued to De'era to join the Damascus-Medina "Pilgrims' Railway." For 80 kilometers it ran below sea level, and the lowest station was at Dalamiya (Naharayim), 247 meters below sea level. The building of the line was overseen by German engineer Heinrich August Meissner.

When the British left Israel, it had a railway network that basically covered the whole of the country. The lines were single tracks, and there was no connection along the coast between Tel Aviv and Haifa. It was only in 1953 that the coastal line was connected between the two cities, at Kfar Vitkin. Even so, the line was a single track and caused problems. One train had to go into a siding and wait while the other one passed.

In 1948, the Haifa branch went out of use and only in 2011 did the Israeli government put out tenders for the rebuilding of the line to Beit Shean. On December 30, 2012, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the transport minister and the mayor of Beit Shean participated in the cornerstone laying ceremony for the new Beit Shean Railway Station. The old station will be renovated and become part of the new station's complex.

So, what now? For the station at Zichron Yaakov, there seems to be no solution in the foreseeable future. Chen Melling, the curator of the Railway Museum, told me that the approach to the station had to be renovated (not by the railway authority) and the old station would have to be destroyed and a new one built (not even incorporating the old buildings). Since the station has no points or signals, a considerable amount of money would have to be invested.

Based on a talk given by Robin Froumin on November 7 2013 at the old Zichron Yaakov Railway station under the auspices of the Zichron-Caesarea ESRA branch. 



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Tuesday, 28 March 2023

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