The Valley Railway passed its test and public relations journey last week, orchestrated by Ministry of Transport Yisrael Katz and Israel Railways CEO Boaz Tzafrir and accompanied by a delegation of local mayors on the trip. Despite the fanfare, however, the projected use of the line does not justify its expense.
6,000 passengers a day
The new track starts at the existing railway station in Haifa, and passes through three stations in this order: the Kfar Yehoshua-Yokneam station, the Kfar Baruch-Migdal HaEmek station, and the Afula station, from where it goes to the new endpoint in Beit Shean. The track, on which only one train at a time will travel (meaning that the maximum frequency will be two trains an hour), and the four stations built along it cost NIS 4 billion from the state budget, according to the Ministry of Transport.
The operating costs of railway stations on such a scale are around NIS 1 million a month in regular costs, not including ticket price subsidies, another item in the general railway budget from which it is difficult to isolate the costs of the tickets at specific stations.
After we wondered aloud how a country embarks upon such an expensive project without taking such an important figure into account, the Minister of Transport was at least fair enough to take the hint, and chose an optimistic line: "We won't ask how many people are in the region now; we'll ask how many people will come to live here, and how many businesses will be opened when there is a railway shortening the trip from the northern outlying areas to central Israel. People don't bring the railway; the railway brings people," Katz said, quoting Israel's forefather Theodore Herzl. Katz also pointed out that there are also plans for a cargo line from Haifa Port to the Jordanian border just east of Bet Shean. If implemented the line would serve as an export-import pipeline between Jordan and Europe, having major significance for Israel's economy and regional peace. Katz calls the Valley Railway Israel's "Peace Railway."
Tzafir agreed to discuss the numbers for the railway's customers, saying that he estimated that an average of 1,500 people a day would travel on the railway at each of the stations, making a total of 6,000 people a day, or 30,000 a week and 130,000 a month (not counting holidays and Saturdays) for all four stations combined.
For the sake of comparison, about the same number of passengers uses one of the two railway stations in Beer Sheva in a month. An average of over 50,000 passengers a day uses each of the crowded Tel Aviv railway stations. Note that in all of these cases, the number of passengers is for a single station, in comparison with the number expected to accumulate at the four stations on the new line.
Israel has other railways stations with only 1,500 passengers a day. These are intermediate stations connecting main points, for example the towns of Ofakim, Sderot, and Netivot on the southern track between Ashdod and Beer Sheva. 30,000-40,000 passengers a month pass through these stations (just over 1,500 a day on Sunday through Friday). There are also those who dispute the viability of the southern railway stations in the outlying areas, but at least these eventually reach Beer Sheva (or Tel Aviv in the other direction), two large metropolises with many residents and workers using the stations, and operating the small stations on the line is justified by the number of passengers entering and leaving at the large stations.
The Jezreel Valley railway stations, on the other hand, were built on a specially constructed line that ends in Beit Shean. Even if Beit Shean becomes a bustling border town at some time, it is hard to imagine as a metropolis in the foreseeable future. With all due respect to this supposed concern for the outlying areas, a forecast of 6,000 passengers a day makes it difficult to justify the enormous national investment: NIS 4 billion, and millions more each month for operating the railway, not to mention the additional expenses.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on September 6, 2016
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