Connectivity is not globalization: Israel’s railways

There is always someone in every generation in every country on every continent that has had the same dream, since the advent of the steam engine and the railroad. The dream is to have a railway transport system that crosses an entire continent.

Naturally the start (or is it the end?) of the system is in that person’s country, and always a sea-port. That means he control’s the imports and exports of the entire continent. He charges taxes on the imports and exports and decides whether or not certain goods may or may not be imported or exported. As such he controls the economy and the security of the entire continent. By nature of the weight and volume of goods that can be transported by a railway system he has absolute control. Air and road transport cannot compete.

The first step of any such continent wide railway system and control is the construction of a domestic system that starts at sea-ports. In Israel that means Haifa, Eilat and Ashdod. Israel Katz, the Israeli Cabinet Minister for Transport and Infrastructures (and Intelligence) is working hard at planning and implementing a larger than the existing Israeli railway system. For many years the Egged and Dan bus companies held a monopoly and blocked such a development and succeeded given their support by the strong Labor Unions.

It all sounds great, on paper. The existing coastal railway line that is slow because it stops at many towns and within many cities will be supplemented by a new express north-south line parallel to the Road 6 which is inland. It will also link with Eilat in the south and the Golan  in the north. In the metropolitan areas railway stations will be supplemented by a light-rail system. Jerusalem has one already and Tel-Aviv is under construction.

Of course to succeed the dream would need the participation of other countries. Jordan would need to extend its system. Jordan might agree as it has a peace treaty with Israel. However what about Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states? They don’t recognise Israel. And they too have a similar dream, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) railway system that was approved in December 2009. However the expected date of completion of the project is uncertain, given the lack of clarity on the exact scale and operating model of the venture.

The idea might sound ambitious but other countries are also working on even larger plans. Although not solely a railway system China’s “One Belt, One Road” unveiled in October 2013 aims at controlling the coverage area of Asia and Europe, encompassing around 60 countries. Oceania and East Africa are also included. The plan has been contrasted with the two US-centric trading arrangements, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

However not everyone is happy with the new Israel (Katz) Railway plans. Freight will have priority over passengers. Haifa for example would need a major revamp of its railway system. Some stations may be closed including the Bat Galim station that serves the Rambam hospital while new lines may further block access of the population to the coast. Railway lines have fences along their routes so people would have to travel some distance to each bridge or underground passage. Not to mention the transportation of hazardous material.

Evidence is clear to hand that Haifa residents may not have much say in the matter as the grand-plan is to resuscitate the British Mandate Haifa-Baghdad railway dream. Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq will have access to the Mediterranean through Israel’s ports in Haifa and Ashdod, in a plan called “Tracks for Peace.” The plan is to extend the new Haifa to Beit She’an train link to connect with the Jordanian railway system. If the Palestinians so wish it to be, then it would also be possible for the railway system to extend southward to the Jenin area.

It might be said that a Middle East railway system of connectivity starting at Israel’s sea ports would help transcend geopolitics. Trade throughout history has resulted in trans-national cooperation even amongst the most despotic of adversaries. However on the other hand it might also be said that such connectivity is emerging as the theatre of present day geopolitics.

Only time will tell which is more applicable for Israel. In the meantime it is probably a good idea for those Israelis’ that are unhappy about the railway plans to accept them while advocating using the system to their advantage. For example Haifa residents can call on the government to move the oil refineries and ammonia plants into the Jordanian or even Iraqi deserts. Surely continent wide connectivity also means a sharing of burdens.

About the Author
Dr Glen Segell is Fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran & Persian Gulf Studies, University of Haifa.
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