The Jezreel Valley train rises again

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Passengers waiting for the train at Afula station (Photo: Jamie Cowen)

In the late 19th century some British politicians concocted the idea of constructing a train from Baghdad to Haifa. Its purpose was to connect British interests in the region. With starts and stops the Ottoman Empire assumed control of all plans, and in the early 20th century built a famous railway known as the Hejaz Railway, running from Damascus to Medina/Mecca. Their goal was to further mesh the Arab communities and particularly Muslim holy places with Ottoman rule. The Ottomans also took over the planned Damascus-Haifa route, already under partial construction by British investors, and converted it to an extension of the Hejaz Railway. The rail line running from Haifa to the main artery of the Hejaz Railway, running through Jordan, became known as the Jezreel Valley Railway. Essentially, the line ran through the heart of the Jezreel Valley, a valley famous for numerous Biblical references. The valley was part of one of the major trading routes in the ancient world and the avenue for numerous invading armies from the north. It’s also known in Biblical terminology as the Valley of Armageddon.

Overtime the Jezreel Valley Railway became quite popular and profitable, both for tourism and commerce. This was particularly true during the British Mandate period, 1917-1948. However, as the Jewish settlements in the Mandate moved towards nationhood to which the British was blocking, Jewish resistance fighters attacked various parts of the railroad to disrupt British commercial and military interests. Finally, during the War of Independence the Hagganah (predecessor to the Israel Defense Force), destroyed most of the bridges carrying the rail lines to prevent invading Arab armies from using it. Thus, usage of the railroad ended.

For sixty-five years the Jezreel Valley Train was a footnote in history until just a few days ago. On October 16, 2016, the Jezreel Valley Railway rose again. The Israeli government had discussed resurrecting the rail line for many years, and finally started reconstruction several years ago. When we moved to Kibbutz Merchavia (which abuts the city of Afula), we heard about the railway plans. After our first year here, the open fields behind our house, which had been filled with wildlife, were suddenly under construction. Massive apartment buildings sprang up, just beyond our backyard, and then construction began along the main road between Beit Shean (near the Jordan border) and Afula. This was the pathway for the new/old railroad.

Jamie's wife, Stacy, outside of the Afula train station (Photo: Jamie Cowen)
Jamie’s wife, Stacy, outside of the Afula train station (Photo: Jamie Cowen)

For the past three years, massive mounds of dirt were moved and erected, creating huge swirling dust storms through and around our property. And then suddenly the announcement was made that the new Jezreel Valley Railway had resumed service. For the first month rides were free. So, my wife, Stacy, and I decided to take advantage and ride to the Haifa beach on the Mediterranean Sea. There’s a station in Afula, about a mile from our house. The train essentially follows the route of the earlier one with stations in similar places. We pulled into the large parking lot (rare for Israel) and proceeded to the station. I intended to get there early since we didn’t know the layout, but I didn’t expect the crowds.

Even though these early rides were free, we still needed to “purchase” a ticket. As we entered there was bedlam in the station with folks encircling the few ticket machines, trying to figure out how to get a ticket. We were starting to run out of time to catch the train – the next one was in an hour. I was worrying about figuring out the machine in Hebrew, especially with anxious people behind us, vying for a ticket. Fortunately, the machines offered an English option. We grabbed our tickets and rushed to the platform. Shortly thereafter, the train arrived. But oh-oh, it was packed. The platform also was filled with folks. The doors opened. People tried to exit while the crowd on the platform surged forward. I grabbed Stacy by the hand and plunged in. We made it, but standing room only.

There were two stops before Haifa. The trip to Haifa center took about 35 minutes, but we were heading further to the beach to meet a good friend for lunch. Except for standing, it was a pleasant trip. We passed alongside the Carmel Mountain range, comparable to the route of the ancient traders. Clearly, all the building in our city was due to commuters’ plans to use the train for working in Haifa.

The Haifa station also connects to trains running north and south, leading to Tel Aviv, Beersheva and Modi’in. People have asked if I can use the train for work, and the answer is no unless I have a meeting in Tel Aviv. Petach Tikvah, where I work, while also on a train line, would mean transferring trains twice and taking me twice as long to get to work.

After a pleasant lunch on the beach, I assumed grabbing the train in the other direction would be less crowded, especially because it was only mid-afternoon. Sure enough, the train arrived with plenty of seats. It reminded me of the days when we lived in the Washington, DC area, and I took the Amtrak train to work every day. We were just enjoying the comfortable, scenic ride. A couple of stops later I noticed very few people in our car, and I thought that strange. Wait a minute, the sign said Nahariya, far north of Israel, near the Lebanese border. I looked outside – sure enough, we were heading north – wrong train. No wonder the train was empty – who goes to Lebanon these days? I’m sure Hezbollah would have welcomed us with open arms – not sure what kind though.

We got off at the next stop (nowhere near Lebanon) and headed back. By the time we arrived at the Haifa station, we now had to wait almost an hour for the next train. The place was filling up. It is generally vacation time now in Israel due to the seven-day holiday of Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles), and I think every family in Israel with thousands of children were using the railroad, especially due to the free rides. When the next train arrived, it was also packed, and there were tons of people on the platform. Again, I grabbed Stacy and pushed forward. It’s hard to believe everyone got in. Sardines in a can have more room. Once again we were crushed into a corner, standing room only. To top it off, the last person on was a religious guy who had enough luggage with him for a month long trip. He slammed in and then erected a wall of luggage against the door, of course making it easy for ingress and egress at the next station. I think someone could have died standing there, and no one would have noticed until the crowd departed the train and the dead person would have fallen off somewhere in the station.

We finally arrived back in Afula. Stacy and I were exhausted from the trip. But it was still fun to ride on a historic train. The train is not only for commuters and vacationers but also for commerce to and from Jordan and into the larger Arab world. I’m sure we’ll use the train often to go to Haifa, but hopefully charging for tickets will limit the crowds.