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Finance Ministry experts said to warn trans-Israel high-speed train a waste of money

Finance Ministry experts have warned the government that a plan unveiled by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a high-speed rail network spanning the length of the country north to south will be too costly to justify given the expected number of passengers, Channel 12 reported Monday.

Netanyahu announced the project at Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting and then held a press briefing about what he dubbed “the great transport revolution,” together with Transportation Minister Miri Regev and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich.

The NIS 100 billion ($27 billion) plan is to link the northern city of Kiryat Shmona to the Red Sea resort of Eilat in the far south by rail, with some of the trains running at speeds of up to 250 kilometers (155 miles) per hour. Israel Railways’ strategic plan predicts that by 2040, the railway will serve around 300 million passengers annually.

However, according to the unsourced Channel 12 report, Finance Ministry experts pointed out that the cost of the Beersheba-Eilat section of the railway — the longest and most challenging — will cost NIS 40 billion ($10.8 billion) to NIS 50 billion ($13.5 billion), but that even at peak hours no more than 400 passengers an hour are expected to use the service. Likewise, a northern section from Karmiel to Kiryat Shemona will cost some NIS 16 billion ($4.3 billion) but is also only expected to have 526 passengers per hour at peak times.

By contrast, doubling service from Haifa to Tel Aviv along the coast will cost NIS 15 billion ($4 billion) and will see some 36,000 passengers per hour at peak times. Likewise, extending the existing train line to Jerusalem to reach further into the capital and the addition of two new stations will cost less than NIS 5 billion ($1.3 billion) but could serve up to 19,000 people per hour at peak times.

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Ministers argued back that the project should not just be considered in terms of economic gain or loss and that it has the added value of developing outlying regions, the report said. They suggested that the estimates for the routes would prove to be too low, as once the train is available it will encourage more people to move away from the center and thereby increase the number of passengers.

However, according to the network, experts remain convinced it will be a waste of public funds and that towns outside the center can be bolstered in more efficient ways.

Transportation Minister Miri Regev at a press conference on the planned construction of a new railway line from the northern city of Kiryat Shmona to the city of Eilat, in Jerusalem, July 30, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

In addition, it is not yet clear where the money for the project will come from, the network said. Experts warned that if the government pushes ahead with the plan, it will require substantial subsidization over the years.

Eilat is separated from Israel’s main urban centers by the vast Negev and Arava deserts. Dimona, where Israel’s southernmost railway station is currently located, is 208 kilometers (130 miles) from Eilat. But the sheer enormity and cost of taking the railway from Dimona to Eilat have prevented the realization of such a project, going back to the early years of the state. Indeed, a proposal to build such a line has been discussed roughly every decade.

A report prepared a decade ago for the Shasha Center for Strategic Studies at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel found that there was no basis for claims made at the time about the benefits of a rail link to Eilat.

In addition to other complications such as building a new port to handle predicted cargo traffic for the train, the research also found passenger traffic would be too low to justify the huge costs of a new railway, and with a new railhead expected to damage another state-funded project — the international airport serving Eilat.