Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks and sounds like he is love when he talks about his plans to build a high-speed railway line to Eilat. With romantic enthusiasm, he describes how the train will travel at 300 km/h down the Arava, carrying Tel Aviv residents to Eilat within two hours - faster than by plane. However, professionals ridicule these plans.
It will cost NIS 7-8 billion just to lay the tracks. The line would be built in record time of six years, or so the Chinese contractor, which will probably build it, promises. We assume that these estimates will soar tens or even hundreds of percent in the coming years.
For the sake of comparison, consider the British government's plan to build a 250-kilometer high-speed rail between London and Manchester and Leeds at a total estimated investment of $52 billion - 25 times the estimated cost of the 350-kilometer Tel Aviv-Eilat line! The London-Manchester line is scheduled to be completed in 2033.
While it is true that 200 kilometers of the Tel Aviv-Eilat line already exists between Tel Aviv and Beersheva, leaving 160 kilometers to be laid through Nahal Zin and the Arava by an army of cheap and hard-working Chinese laborers, just setting the budget and timetable targets should be put into more modest proportions.
An Israeli businessman who showed the plans to one of the world's largest railway contractors was asked if he was joking. The contractor asked him, "Do you really think that you're going to build a multibillion dollar high-speed railway merely to carry passengers to one town with 30,000 residents? Is Netanyahu so desperate to show achievements?"
If the idea of bringing the periphery closer to the center of the country justifies building grandiose projects, why not build high-speed railways to cities with far greater populations that Eilat and the kibbutzim and moshavim of the Arava? For example, a high-speed railway between Tel Aviv and Haifa could cut travel time to 35 minutes, and a similar line to Beersheva could carry passengers from the south to metropolitan Tel Aviv in 40 minutes.
The contribution of high-speed railways to the strengthening of the periphery is also controversial. "The Economist" says the experience of France and Spain indicates high-speed rail actually reinforces the center, by drawing in businesses from the periphery. "The [British] government seems not to have listened. ₤32 billion at its disposal might well yield a higher return if it were spent on less glitzy schemes, such as road improvement and intercity transport initiatives. If the aim is to regenerate the north, the current plan might prove a high-speed route in the wrong direction."
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on February 29, 2012
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