Monday, June 21, 2010

Travel Israel's Railways???

Does it come as a surprise to you to learn that a country as small as Israel even HAS railways? Well, I was once as surprised as you--especially since I am from a railroad family and came along at just about the end of the passenger railroad era. I did not, therefore, get to ride on trains much.To make up for the loss, I will jump on one whenever I can.
But I didn't know this was an option in Israel, until I was enlightened by a friend in Haifa. I had been there for a few days, interviewing Max and his wife Chava about Holocaust heroine Gisi Fleischmann, on whom I was writing a book.
As I was packing to return to Jerusalem, Max asked, "Why not take the train back?"
"Train!" I exclaimed, startled.
"Yes. It used to run from here all the way into Egypt. When the 1948 war ended we had hoped there would be peace, and we could once again go down there by train. But it never happened."
(Max was speaking years later, shortly after the Camp David Accord instituted a kind of cold peace between Israel and Egypt. That was in the late 70s, and I was in Israel about the time this agreement was being negotiated. But, as I've said, at the time of that trip I had no knowledge of the railroad. To this day do not know whether it has been reopened for its full length. I presume not, because the Camp David Accord never blossomed into a full peace. Egypt and Israel have remained in a state of not-war, which I suppose is better than war. But only slightly.
Anyway. I return to the point at which Max told me about the railroad from Haifa to Jerusalem. I quickly decided to "ride the rails" on this occasion, and the Livnis took me to the train station instead of the bus station.
I don't remember the locomotive, which any true fan of railroads would find reprehensible. But, despite the fact that I had relatives who drove first coal-driven, then diesel locomotives, my interest in trains has always been mostly in the places they connected and the people who rode them.
The passenger cars on this train I do remember--I remember them as clean, and narrow. The railroad may have been--and almost certainly was--an old-fashioned narrow gauge type, that had never been widened. There were only a few people aboard.
I traveled southward, gazing meditatively out on the Mediterranean Sea. After a short time, not more than an hour and a half or two if I recall, we arrived in what I thought was Tel Aviv. There we made some kind of connection. Did this involve changing trains, or just changing locomotives? It's too long ago to remember. All I know is that we were soon chugging through the Judaean Hills toward the city everyone calls Holy.
When we arrived at the Jerusalem station, I was pleased to realize that I was in my old neighborhood, so to speak, and could practically look into my own bedroom window. That was because the train came in very close to the famous Scottish Hospice (St. Andrew's) and to the British consulate. I had stayed at the Scottish Hospice on my previous trip, chronicled in my book "Jerusalem Journal". So I could gaze at the window and almost imagine myself waving back.
The origins and history of the little railroad have until recently been a puzzle to me; but I have recently learned more from another writer, far more famous than I. And that information I will share in my next post.

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