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Daniel Chazin's Trips on Israel Railways

It's 4:35 p.m. on Tuesday, January 16, 2001, and I have just arrived at the Central Railway Station in Tel-Aviv. I flew to Israel last Wednesday for my cousin's wedding in Jerusalem, which took place on Sunday night, and am using some of the remaining time to do some touring.

Today, I visited some relatives in Bat Yam, a southern suburb of Tel-Aviv. I would have preferred to travel from Jerusalem to Tel-Aviv by rail -- and, indeed, I did ride this rail line in 1968, on my first visit to Israel. It is a magnificent route, winding through the mountains leading to Jerusalem, and is undoubtedly the most scenic and inspirational way to arrive at the Holy City. But this indirect, curving line could not compete in travel time with the buses traveling on modern superhighways. In recent years, service has been limited to only one or two daily trains in each direction, and there were few passengers. As a result, service on this rail line was suspended about two years ago. So I had to travel to Tel-Aviv by bus. I was told take the #404 bus, which goes directly to Bat Yam, but when I arrived at the Jerusalem Central Bus Station at 8:15 a.m., I was informed that the next #404 bus does not leave until 9:30 a.m. So I decided to take the next express bus to the Tel-Aviv Central Bus Station, which left at 8:30 a.m.

The ride to Tel-Aviv proceeded quite smoothly until we approached the city. Several miles from Tel-Aviv, we ran into traffic on the expressway, and we crawled along for the rest of the way. As a result, the trip took an hour and 20 minutes. We finally arrived at the Central Bus Station in Tel-Aviv at about 9:50 a.m. Our bus had to stop for a security check before entering the station, and my backpack was inspected as I proceeded to walk into the terminal.

The "new" Central Bus Station in Tel-Aviv is an unattractive, creepy place. It has six levels, which are connected by stairways, ramps and escalators, but in a very awkward fashion. I had to make my way from the sixth level, where my bus arrived, down to the first level, from where my local bus to Bat Yam would be departing. It took some time to do this, as the connections between the levels are not continuous, nor do signs clearly indicate how to get from one level to another. I finally discovered the long, narrow passageway which led to the platform from which my local bus #46 departed. (My cousin in Bat Yam later told me that she and her husband hate this bus station so much that they often take the bus to the station at Arlosoroff Street -- adjacent to the railway station in northern Tel-Aviv -- even though this involves a longer, less direct ride.)

After passing through an old, rather seedy section of Tel- Aviv, we passed through the ancient city of Jaffa and finally arrived at Bat Yam. I first visited the apartment of my cousins Adena and David. Then I took a bus back towards Tel-Aviv, getting off near the apartment complex where my relatives Raphie and Ethel live. I joined them for a delicious lunch, then went up to their apartment for tea and cake. About 3:15 p.m., I left and walked back to the bus stop. Ethel pointed out that the #10 bus from this stop goes all the way to the Arlosoroff station, immediately adjacent to the railway station, so I decided to take this bus instead of the #46, both to avoid the "creepy" Central Bus Station, and to provide me with the opportunity to take a short train ride before returning to Jerusalem.

I just missed one bus and had to wait for 20 minutes for the next one. The bus wound through the streets of Tel-Aviv for about 45 minutes, finally arriving at the Tel-Aviv Merkaz (Central) railway station -- the end of the bus route -- at about 4:35 p.m.

A guard was stationed at the entrance to the station, and he asked me to open my backpack so he could inspect it. After a quick inspection, I entered the station, which features a high ceiling, but is of rather ordinary design. I picked up copies of the various timetables available, and noticed that a train would be leaving for Rosh ha-Ayin at 4:56 p.m. (or 16:56, according to the 24-hour time system in use by the Israel Railways). This is a very short line, designated in the timetable as "suburban," rather than "intercity," with the train scheduled to arrive at its final destination at 5:14 p.m., and a return train leaving a few minutes later. I decided that this would be a good, quick trip to sample the Israel Railways, so I proceeded to buy a ticket.

Tickets at this station are sold both by agents at ticket windows and by machine. I elected to purchase my ticket from the machine, which included English as an optional language. (Although I understand Hebrew, I don't know all the technical terms associated with railway travel, and therefore chose the English option.) The price of a ticket to Rosh ha-Ayin is 10.50 Israeli shekels, which -- at the rate of four shekels to the dollar -- amounts to about $2.60. I then proceeded to Track 4, where I would be boarding the train.

The system in use for collection of fares is quite different from what we are accustomed to in the United States (although similar to that used for some suburban trains around London, England). First, you have to go through a turnstile, where you insert your ticket, which is automatically read by the machine. You then get your ticket back. Then, before you go down to the platform, an agent inspects and punches your ticket. Once aboard the train, the ticket was not inspected by the conductor.

At precisely 4:50 p.m., the westbound train from Rosh ha- Ayin arrived on Track 4. After everyone had detrained, we were allowed to board the train, and it departed on time at 4:56 p.m.

This evening's train to Rosh ha-Ayin consists of three diesel self-propelled multiple-unit cars, which are permanently articulated into one trainset. There are doors only on the first and third cars, not on the second car. Seating is in facing pairs of four seats, with a small table in between each pair of seats -- a very nice feature. The first and third cars have 48 seats, with 64 seats in the middle car, resulting in a total capacity of 160 seats. Although the seats do not recline, they have high backs and are quite comfortable. The legroom between the seats seemed rather generous, although the train was no more than half full, and I was able to secure a group of four seats to myself in the rear car. (This was somewhat surprising, since the train departed at the beginning of the evening rush hour.)

One interesting feature of these cars is the manner of boarding. The stations along this line are all equipped with high-level platforms. However, there are no traps to cover the steps provided for use at low-level platforms. Thus, passengers boarding at the high-level platforms have to step across two steps in order to reach the third step, which is at the approximate level of the platform. I've never seen this arrangement before, but it did seem to work fairly well.

The first part of the ride proceeds along the heavily-used main line to Haifa and Nahariyya, which is in the median strip of an expressway. After stopping at the newly-opened Tel-Aviv University station, we turned right and proceeded along the single-track branch line which leads east towards Rosh ha-Ayin. This line, for the most part, passes through pleasant agricultural country. There were two more intermediate stops -- Bney Brak and Petah Tikva -- and we arrived at the final destination, Rosh ha-Ayin, on time at 5:14 p.m.

Arriving passengers are required to depart from the station via turnstiles which require you to insert your ticket. I went through the turnstiles and then walked back to the station entrance. The station at Rosh ha-Ayin is a small but attractive one, built of stone. There is an agent on duty, but there is also a ticket machine, and I chose to purchase my return ticket from the machine. As was the case at the Tel-Aviv station, you have to insert your ticket into the turnstile and then hand it to an agent, who punches it and returns it to you.

As might be expected, for the ride back to Tel-Aviv, the train was even less crowded than it had been for the outbound trip. I rode in the same car, which was now the first car on the train, and noticed that the door to the engineer's compartment in the front was kept open for the entire trip, thus permitting one to stand in the aisle and look out the front of the train. I couldn't see very much, though, as it was already getting dark. We arrived at the Tel-Aviv Merkaz station at 5:39 p.m., on time. As was the case in Rosh ha-Ayin, you had to put your ticket through a turnstile to exit the station.

I then proceeded through the open-air bus terminal adjacent to the station until I found the platform for my #480 bus to Jerusalem, which was just beginning to board. There was a large crowd of people waiting to board the bus, and although I did succeed in getting a seat, quite a number of people had to stand. We left the bus terminal at 5:58 p.m. and arrived in Jerusalem about an hour later.

My rail trip today was rather short, but I plan on taking a longer trip on Thursday, when I will be going to Haifa. It's 9:45 a.m. on Thursday, January 18, 2001, and I've just arrived at the Central Railway Station in Tel-Aviv, having taken the #480 bus from Jerusalem. Today, the trip took only 53 minutes, even though we encountered a little traffic near Tel- Aviv. Today, I will be heading to Haifa, an intercity ride of about an hour.

For those who are used to train travel in the United States, I should point out that Israel is a much smaller country -- about the size of New Jersey. Moreover, the rail network does not extend south as far as Eilat, the southernmost point in Israel. The longest passenger train journey one can take in Israel is from Nahariyya to Be'er Sheva, a journey of about three hours. And although several daily trains do make this run, hardly anyone travels this entire distance, The most heavily used part of this route is the section between Haifa and Tel-Aviv. This double- tracked line, which runs parallel to the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, offers half-hourly express service between the two cities all day long, with the ride taking about one hour. Additional local service is provided between Binyamina (about halfway between the two cities) and Tel-Aviv. Due to the fast, frequent service and the location of three stations in Tel-Aviv immediately adjacent to the main commercial center, the train has become a very popular means of transportation in this corridor.

I walked from the bus terminal over to the rail station and purchased my ticket from a machine. This time, I was offered the option of a round-trip ticket to Haifa for 38 shekels ($9.50), and when I chose that option, I received a single ticket, with separate areas for punching on each leg of the journey. Again, I first inserted the ticket in the turnstile and then had it punched by the agent at the entrance to the stairway leading down to Track 1, where my train would be leaving from. The train, scheduled to depart at 10:00 a.m., pulled into the station at 9:57 a.m.

Today's train, which begins its trip at the Hashalom station in Tel-Aviv (just south of the Merkaz [Central] station), is pulled by a diesel engine and consists of eight coaches, all of which (except the rear car) have 86 seats, arranged in groups of four facing seats, with a small table in between. The seats have high backs and are quite comfortable, but do not recline. This equipment seems somewhat older than the more modern articulated train that I rode yesterday. I found a seat in the third car from the rear, which was rather empty, with only about 20 people sitting in that car, and I was able to keep a group of four seats for myself for the entire trip. We departed one minute late, at 10:01 a.m.

I immediately noticed copies of the official Israel Railways magazine, entitled Rak Rakevet ("Only the Train") available in racks along the sides of the car, so I picked up a copy and started reading it. This Hebrew-language magazine featured a number of interesting articles, most of which related to the railroad itself, rather than other topics. One of the articles announced the new internet site of Israel Railways, www.israrail.org.il, and another article was an interview with the Minister of Transport and Tourism, who stated, inter alia, that the Israeli rail lines should not be privatized because. although they provide a vital public service, they are bound to lose money. He also stated that the rail line to Jerusalem will not be successful unless it offers frequent service and is faster than buses or automobiles, and that it would be a waste of money to merely rehabilitate the existing line, as no one will ride trains if they are slower than alternative means of transport.

Soon, the conductor came by to inspect tickets. Then, a vendor in a cart came by, offering beverages, snacks and sandwiches for sale. I purchased a half-liter bottle of soda for seven shekels ($1.75). Then, after beginning to write these memoirs, I decided to walk through the train. Ordinarily, I would have left my backpack at my seat, but given the security concerns in Israel, I decided to take it along with me. I found that the last three cars of the train were relatively empty, while the next four cars were about half full. The first car had reserved seating (for which there was a small additional charge), and an attendant sitting at the entrance to the car stopped me from entering when I tried to walk in. That car was largely empty, but it appeared to be identical to the other cars on the train. Since there were plenty of seats in my car, I would not have accomplished anything by purchasing a reserved seat. Altogether, I counted about 210 people on the train, with a total seating capacity of 640. Thus, the train was about one-third full.

The scenery along the way was largely agricultural, with several towns visible near the tracks. There were a number of grade crossings, protected by automatic gates. When we left Binyamina, the first stop after departing the Tel-Aviv area, at 11:36 a.m., we were five minutes late.

Soon after I returned to my seat, a security agent of the railroad came over to me and asked for photo ID. It seems that he was puzzled by my walking back and forth through the train, and thought that I might have some improper motives. I hadn't taken my passport along with me, and I don't have any other photo ID (New Jersey is one of the few states which issues driver's licenses without pictures). Eventually, I convinced him (speaking in Hebrew) that I was an American citizen and was walking through the train just because I wanted to see it.

A few minutes before we arrived in Haifa, the vendor passed through my car again. His cell phone rang, and I heard him reporting the quantities of various items that remained on his trolley. Apparently, his trolley was going to be restocked at the Haifa station, and by reporting the supplies that he needed, the necessary items would be waiting for him when the train made its rather brief stop.

After stopping at suburban Hof ha-Carmel station and at the new Haifa Bat Galim station (which now seems to have become the main Haifa station), we arrived at the Haifa Merkaz (Central) Station at 11:04 a.m., three minutes late. I got off, crossed the bridge leading over the tracks, and walked through a turnstile into the station. The station building is a relatively old one, with a high ceiling, but it seemed rather deserted (although the ticket window was open, as was a refreshment stand). I continued out to the street, where I walked down several blocks to the Carmelit, an underground cable railway that ascends the mountain upon which Haifa is built. I rode this interesting conveyance up to the top of the mountain, walked around the adjacent commercial area, and got a shwarma in a pita for lunch from a small stand. I also stopped at a museum which featured pictures of the Land of Israel from 1900 to the present (a few of the pictures were rail related, such as one showing the construction of the original Haifa railroad station in 1906). Then I walked down the mountain, visiting the magnificent gardens of the Baha'i Temple on the way.

I arrived back at the Haifa Merkaz station about 2:50 p.m. I could have taken the next train back to Tel-Aviv, but decided instead to ride to Nahariyya, the most northerly rail station in Israel (it's only about five miles from there to Lebanon). So, for 13 shekels ($3.25), I purchased a one-way ticket to Nahariyya, with the next train scheduled to leave at 3:01 p.m. (Again, I wasn't offered the option of purchasing a round-trip ticket; why, I'm not sure). The southbound train to Tel-Aviv arrived at 2:58 p.m. on Track 1, adjacent to the station, and my northbound train arrived on Track 2 (which can be reached only by crossing a pedestrian footbridge over the tracks) at 3:03 p.m. The train was pulled by a diesel engine and included seven passenger cars and some kind of non-passenger car (I think it was a power-generating car) at the rear. This equipment was older than that on the train this morning. There were several slightly different kinds of cars, each of which had between 80 and 84 seats, all arranging in facing groups of four seats, with tables between each pair of seats.

Unlike the train I took this morning to Haifa, this train to Nahariyya was packed. Almost every seat was taken, and I finally found one backward-facing seat in the rear car that was not occupied. Soon, we passed the Haifa Mizrah (East) station -- the original Haifa station, constructed of stone in 1906. This station is no longer used for passenger service, and an adjacent building has been converted into a railroad museum. The museum is open only during the morning, but I hope to visit it on a future trip.

North of Haifa, the train passes through a rather unattractive industrial area, including railroad shops. Much equipment is stored in this area, including a number of ancient wooden cars. Some out-of-service passenger equipment bore paint marks indicating that it was destined for the museum.

Quite a few people detrained at the next two stops, Kiryat Hayyim and Kiryat Motzkin. North of Kiryat Motzkin (which is the terminus of suburban service from Haifa), the line becomes single-tracked, and remains this way for the rest of the distance to Nahariyya. As we approached the following stop, Akko (Acre), the train ran along the Mediterranean Sea for a short distance, affording magnificent views of the Old City of Akko.

Most of the remaining passengers detrained when we arrived at Akko at 3:30 p.m., four minutes late. Waiting for us was the southbound train, also scheduled to arrive in Akko at 3:26 p.m. This is a scheduled meet for most Haifa-Nahariyya trains, and the southbound train has to wait for the northbound train to arrive before it can proceed south on the single track. Most of the remaining passengers detrained here. From Akko, it was only another nine minutes to Nahariyya, where we arrived at 3:40 p.m., three minutes late.

The Nahariyya station, situated on the west side of the tracks, is being rebuilt with a high-level platform, and a temporary station has been constructed (with a low-level platform) on the east side. I detrained and walked down to the front of the train, where the exit from the platform was. (I should note that, north of Haifa, none of the stations were equipped with the automatic turnstiles found in Tel-Aviv, Haifa and other stations.) As I walked by, I noticed that the engine had been taken off the front of the train and was being switched to another track so that it could run around the train and be attached to the other side. It seems that the equipment on this train (unlike that of the train that I had ridden from Tel-Aviv to Haifa) is not equipped for push-pull operation, and the engine must accordingly be switched from one end of the train to the other before the train can depart in the opposite direction.

Since there was over half an hour before the next southbound train would depart, I decided to walk into the town. The station is located at the eastern end of the business area along the main street, so I walked down that street for a few blocks, stopping in one of the stores, and then returned to the station. The tracks continue north of the station, but they are rusted and do not seem to be used. (This is not surprising, since the Lebanese border is only a few miles away.)

When I re-entered the station area, the guard on duty asked me (and all other entering passengers) to show her my identity card (which is issued to all Israeli citizens). I explained to her that I was an American citizen and did not have my passport with me. I then showed her my driver's license, which she accepted as sufficient proof of my identity. Then I walked into the small, makeshift station, where I purchased a ticket to Haifa from a machine, and boarded the train. We departed on time at 4:16 p.m.

Hardly anyone was in my car when we departed Nahariyya, but a number of passengers boarded in Chatsrot Yasaf (a small village, where only some of the trains stop) and Akko, where we arrived at 4:27 p.m. As was the case on my trip to Nahariyya, the northbound train was late, and we did not depart until 4:32 p.m. More passengers boarded at Kiryat Motzkin and Kiryat Hayyim, and by the time we departed the Hof ha-Carmel station just south of Haifa on time at 5:07 p.m., all four seats in the seat group that I was sitting in were occupied, with very few empty seats anywhere in my car. (I didn't try to walk to another car, either, as I figured that the other cars were probably quite full, too.)

By now, it was getting dark, and the batteries in my computer were almost dead. I could not find any electric outlets in my car, so I would not be able to use my computer any further until I returned to Jerusalem. The rest of the ride back to Tel- Aviv was uneventful. At one point, the conductor came to check tickets, and I presented him with the round-trip Tel-Aviv-Haifa ticket, which he punched for the return trip. We arrived at the Tel-Aviv Merkaz station at 6:01 p.m., four minutes late. I detrained, walked through the turnstiles and over to the adjacent bus station, and boarded a #480 bus back to Jerusalem. We ran into some traffic coming in to Jerusalem, and the ride ended up taking an hour and eight minutes.

I definitely enjoyed my trips on the Israel Railways, but I really wish that the line to Jerusalem was still being operated. It seems to me that the traffic on the Jerusalem-Tel-Aviv highway has gotten so bad, especially in rush hours, that the reopening of this line will soon become essential in order to decrease traffic congestion. Hopefully, this will happen in the not-too- distant future.

Many more rail travelogues for you to read:
Dan Chazin / Other Writers

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