Four years ago I brought up the concept of the small, dense country to argue in favor of full electrification in Israel, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Right now I am going to dredge up this concept again, in the context of intercity trains. In a geographically small country, the value of very high speed is low, since trains do not have stretches of hundreds of kilometers over which 300 km/h has a big advantage over 200 km/h; if this country is dense, then furthermore there are likely to be significant cities are regular intervals, and stopping at them would eliminate whatever advantage high-speed rail had left.
Nonetheless, unlike with electrification, with high-speed rail there is a significant difference between Israel and the Low Countries. Israel does not have economic ties with its neighbors, even ones with which it does have diplomatic relationships, that are strong enough to justify international high-speed rail. Belgium and the Netherlands do – the high-speed rail they do have is already internationally-oriented – and their problem is that they have not quite completed their systems, leading to low average speeds.
The situation in Israel
Israel is a country of 20,000 square kilometers, with about 9 million people. Both figures exclude the entirety of the Territories, which are not served by intercity trains anyway, and have such geography that not even the most ardent annexationists propose to build any.
The country is long and narrow, and the maximum north-south distance is almost 500 km, but the cities at the ends are very small, and the population density in the South is exceptionally low. Eilat, at the southern tip of the country, is a city of 52,000, and is 170 km from the nearest Israeli city, Dimona. A low-speed line for freight may be appropriate for this geography, offering an alternative to the Suez Canal, but there is no real point in investing in high passenger rail speed. For purposes of fast intercity trains, the southern end of Israel is Beer Sheva, less than 100 km from Tel Aviv.
In the Galilee the situation is not quite as stark. The main barrier to intercity rail development is not low population density – on the contrary, the Galilee averages around 400 people per km^2, not counting the Golan Heights. Rather, the physical and urban geographies are formidable barriers: the mountainous topography forces all railroads that want to average reasonable speed to tunnel, and the cities are not aligned on linear corridors, nor are there very large agglomerations except Nazareth, which is about 100 km north of Tel Aviv. A low-speed rail network would be valuable, tunneling only under mountainous cities like Nazareth and Safed, but even 200 km/h in this region is a stretch, let alone 300. Thus, just as the southern limit of any fast intercity rail planning in Israel should be Beer Sheva, the northern limits should be Haifa and Nazareth.
The box formed by Haifa, Nazareth, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Beer Sheva, less than 200 km on its long side, is not appropriate geography for high-speed rail. It is, however, perfect for medium-speed rail, topping at 160 or 200 km/h. The Tel Aviv-Jerusalem high-speed line, built because the legacy line is so curvy that it is substantially slower than a bus, only runs at 160 km/h for this reason – the distance along the railway between the two cities is 57 km and there’s an intermediate airport stop, so the incremental benefit of running faster is small. The Tel Aviv-Haifa line, built in stages in the 1930s and 50s, runs in the Coastal Plain and is largely straight, capable of 160 km/h or even faster. The Tel Aviv-Beer Sheva line is slower, but it too can be upgraded. In all of these cases, the target average speed is about 120 km/h or perhaps a little faster. A high-speed train would do better, but reducing trip times from 40 minutes to 30 just isn’t worth the expense of a new line.
Nazareth is the odd one out among the major cities, lacking a rail connection. This is for both geographical and sociopolitical reasons: it is on a hill, and it is Arab. Reaching Nazareth from the south is eminently possible, on a line branching from the Coastal Railway in the vicinity of Pardes Hanna, continuing northeast along Route 65 through Kafr Qara and Umm al-Fahm, and entering the city via Afula. Modern EMUs can climb the grades around Umm al-Fahm with little trouble, and only about 4 km of tunnel are required to reach Nazareth, including a mined underground station for the city. Continuing onward requires perhaps 8 km of tunnel.
However, so far Israel Railways has been reticent to enter city centers on tunnels or els. Instead, it serves cities on the periphery of their built-up areas or in freeway medians. It would require little tunneling to enter the center of Netanya or Rishon LeTsiyon, and none to enter that of Ashdod or Ashkelon. This is the result of incompetence, as well as some NIMBYism in the case of Rishon. Nonetheless, such short tunnels are the right choice for regional and intercity rail in those cities as well as in Nazareth, which poor as it is remains the center of Israel’s fourth largest urban agglomeration.
What if there is peace?
In Belgium and the Netherlands, there is 300 km/h high-speed rail, justified by international connections to France and Germany. What if Israel reaches a peace agreement with the Palestinians that thaws its relationships with the rest of the Arab world, justifying international connections to present-day enemy states like Syria and Lebanon as well as to cold friends like Jordan and Egypt?
The answer is that the Levant writ large, too, is a relatively small, dense area. The Palestinian Territories have even higher population density than Israel, as does Lebanon. Jordan and Syria, on the desert side of the mountains, are less dense, but if one drops their low-density areas just as one would drop Israel south of Beer Sheva, the box within which to build intercity trains is not particularly large either.
Amman is 72 km from Jerusalem; it’s an attractive target for a continuation of the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem railway at 160-200 km/h, the main difficulty being the grades down to and up from the Jordan Valley. Beirut and Damascus are both about 240 km from Tel Aviv on the most likely rail routes, via the coast up to Beirut and via Nazareth and Safed up to Damascus. The only connection at a truly compelling distance for 300 km/h rail is to Aleppo, which is not large enough and is unlikely to generate enough ridership across the language and political barrier to be worth it.
Egypt presents a more attractive case. Cairo is enormous, and there is a whole lot of nothing between it and the Gaza Strip, a perfect situation for high-speed rail. However, this is firmly in “we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it” territory, as none of the required construction really affects present-day Israeli intercity rail planning. It’s not like the Levantine Arab capitals, all of which lie along extensions of important domestic Israeli routes.
Integrated timed transfers
The Netherlands and Switzerland both have national rail networks based on the idea of an integrated timed transfer, in which trains from many destinations are designed to reach major nodes all at the same time, so that people can connect easily. In Switzerland, trains arrive at every major city just before :00 and :30 every hour and depart just after, and rail infrastructure construction is designed to enable trains to connect cities in integer multiples of half hours. For example, since trains connected Zurich and Basel with Bern in more than an hour, SBB built a 200 km/h line from Olten to Bern, shortening the trip time to just less than an hour to facilitate connections. Every half hour this line carries a burst of four trains in seven minutes in each direction, to ensure trains from many different destinations can connect at Bern at the right time.
I have argued against this approach in the context of Germany, proposing high–speed rail instead specifically on the grounds that Germany is a large country with many pairs of large cities 500 km apart. In the context of the Netherlands, the integrated timed transfer approach is far superior, which is why it is adopting this approach and refining it in ways that go beyond Switzerland’s decentralized planning. Belgium, too, had better adapt the Swiss and Dutch planning approach. What about Israel?
In Israel, timed transfers are essential to any intercity rail build-out. However, a fully integrated approach is more difficult, for three geographical and historical reasons. First, most intercity traffic flows through one two-track mainline, the Coastal Railway. Using advanced rail signaling to permit many trains to enter Tel Aviv at once is fine, but it would not be the everywhere-to-everywhere system of more polycentric countries like Switzerland.
Second, Israeli metro areas are really a mixture of the mostly-monocentric contiguous sprawl of France and the Anglosphere and the polycentric regions of distinct cities of the Netherlands and the German-speaking world. Jerusalem’s agglomeration is entirely Anglo-French in this typology, without significant independent cores, and Tel Aviv and Haifa both have substantial Anglo-French cores ringed by far less important secondary centers. The significant secondary centers around Tel Aviv and Haifa are edge cities within the built-up area that may be near a rail line, like Herzliya Pituah and the Kiryon, but are never independent town centers like the various Randstad and Rhine-Ruhr cities.
And third, Israel completely lacks the large railway terminals of Western countries that built their mainlines in the 19th century. Integrated pulses require one station track per branch coming out of the station, since the point of such timetables is to have trains from all branches arrive at the station at once. Within Germany there is criticism of the Stuttgart 21 project on the grounds that the new underground Stuttgart station will only have eight tracks, whereas there are about 14 planned branches coming out of the city.
So does this mean timed transfers are a bad idea? Absolutely not. Israel Railways must plan around timed transfers at junction stations like Lod, the closest thing the Tel Aviv region has to a German-style secondary core, as well as at future branch points. Entering secondary city centers like Netanya and Ashdod would involve tunnels and els, but more significantly to the national network, these would all be branches, and adding more branches to the mainline would require planning better transfers at the branch points and in the center.
Moreover, Israel still has significant intercity bus service, and most likely always will. Timed connections between buses and trains at outlying terminals like Ashdod are a must, and nationwide coordination of bus schedules to enable such connections is a must as well.
Intercity rail for a small, dense country
The situation in Israel – as in Belgium and the Netherlands – favors a different kind of rail development from that of larger countries like France and Japan. Short distances between major urban areas, frequent stops for intermediate cities, and cities that are not really located along easy lines call for the following design principles:
- The maximum speed should be 160-200 km/h – lines should not be designed for higher speed if that requires more tunneling or bypassing existing mainlines, unless there is a compelling international link.
- All trains should be electric, and run electric multiple units (EMUs) rather than locomotives, making use of EMUs’ fast acceleration to serve many stops.
- Significant cities that do not have rail links or have circuitous links should get new lines, using short tunnels or viaducts if necessary to reach their centers.
- Transfers at junction stations should be timed, as should transfers between buses and trains in cities with significant travel volumes to areas not served by the railway.
- The state should coordinate timetables and fares at the national level and engage in nationwide integrated planning, since a change in one city can propagate on the schedule 100-200 km away.
In Israel, public transportation planners understand some of these points but not others. Rail planning is based on medium rather than high speed; there are some calls for a high-speed train to Eilat, but so far what I’ve seen is at least partly about freight rather than passengers. The state is electrifying most (though not all) of its rail network – but it’s buying electric locomotives as well as EMUs. New rail lines go in freeway medians and on tangents to built-up areas, as if they were 300 km/h lines, rather than low-speed regional lines for which if people have to drive 5 km they may as well drive the remaining 50 to their destination. Schedule coordination is a mess, especially when buses are involved.
Going forward, Israel should aim to have what the Netherlands has, and even more, since the Netherlands has not fully electrified its network, unlike Switzerland. Israel should aim for very high traffic density, connecting the major cities at a top speed of 160-200 km/h and average speed of about 120 km/h, with easy transfers to slightly slower regional lines and to buses. Its cities may not be Tokyo or Paris, but they’re large enough to generate heavy intercity traffic by public transportation, provided the rail network is there.