Jaffa to Jerusalem by train

- by Alexander Jones - 

This month, for the first time since 1892, the inauguration of a new, direct rail connection from Jaffa to Jerusalem was celebrated. Admittedly today Jaffa is known as Tel Aviv-Yafo, and the new train line doesn't go as close to the historic centres of either city as the original did, but it is now possible to make the journey in just 32 minutes. Despite the project's infamous delays, this is nevertheless a remarkable achievement.

Jaffa and Jerusalem have always been inexorably linked. Jaffa was the port, Jerusalem the pilgrimage destination for at least three major world religions. Until Jaffa's walls were demolished, you would leave the city via the Jerusalem Gate. In English, the main road today in Jaffa is called Jerusalem Boulevard. Similarly, the main road approaching Jerusalem from the west is the Jaffa Road, and people enter the holy city through the Jaffa Gate.

Caravanserai alongside Highway Route One
As the crow flies, this journey is just over 65 km. For thousands of years, this took most people at least three days on foot, or with the help of horses, donkeys or camels. After 1867 the road was made passable with a carriage, but even with a state of the art vehicle the journey would still take two days. Most travellers would spend the night at the Ottoman-era caravansarai which is still visible on the southern side of the modern highway at 'The Gates of the Valley' (Bab al-Wad in Arabic or Shaar HaGay in Hebrew).

In 1892, the inauguration of the Middle East's first railway changed everything. Built under the Ottoman Empire, by a Jewish Jerusalemite named Joseph Navon, who enlisted a French company called the Société du Chemin de Fer Ottoman de Jaffa à Jérusalem et Prolongements, it reduced the journey time to as little as 3 and a half hours. Admittedly this was rarely possible (most reports of early trips suggest it was usually more like a 6 hour trip) as although the journey across the coastal plain is simple enough, the winding switchbacks to get through the steep hills into Jerusalem pose a serious challenge. Initially built using a metre gauge, it was eventually rebuilt as standard gauge during the British Mandate.

Postcard of the old Jaffa railway station
The project shows the importance of the link between Jerusalem and Jaffa - the port of entry for  North African and European Christians and Jews alike, who in this era began coming to the Holy Land in much larger numbers. Many well known names were involved in the project. Moshe Montefiore made the initial feasibility assessment in the 1850s. Aharon Chelouche paid for a bridge in his neighbourhood of Neve Tsedek. Baron Rothschild paid for the construction of several villages along its length. Many of the engineering works were built by the Eiffel Company (of Parisian tower fame).

UNESCO World Heritage listed terraces of Battir, and the train
The line was seriously damaged in the fighting of the War of 1948, and passenger trains never used the Jaffa Station after this, instead running only as far as several Tel Aviv stations. At the end of the war the railway was fully controlled by the new State of Israel, but Jordanian territory came within a metre of the rails near the village of Battir. Incredibly, the train kept chugging up the hill throughout this time with almost no interruptions, and although this beautiful village is now under the control of the Palestinian Authority, the same holds true and no physical barrier separates the village from the railway. More problematic than war for the railway were new roads. The first few decades after Israeli independence saw a huge focus on building modern highways and railways suffered both from neglect and falling usage.  Passenger trains stopped running entirely on the Jaffa-Jerusalem line in 1998, with the idea either to modernise or build a completely new rail route linking the two cities.

In 2001 construction began on a novel, northern route and 2005 the old line reopened, with a greatly reduced schedule and with a change of locomotives required at Bet Shemesh. In 2008 the former Jaffa station was renovated as an entertainment and leisure facility, with the old central Jerusalem Khan Station following suit in 2013. The old line remains a beautiful, winding passage through the hills which takes over two hours and leaves you in a distant suburb of Jerusalem. Useless for all but the enthusiastic train lover, it retains all its old fashioned charm.

The impressive new viaduct on the approach to Jerusalem
The new line first ran un-electrified to Ben Gurion Airport, from 2004, but the rest of the project - which involved building several massive bridges and boring three long tunnels - proved much more difficult. Costs ballooned to an estimated 7 billion shekels and the launch date was repeatedly delayed. The line also involves several short sections over the Green Line, meaning building on land the UN considers to be Occupied Territory. Deutsche Bahn pulled out of the project in 2011 for this reason and many remain opposed to this day. It has also been claimed that the project is the most expensive railway ever, when you calculate the cost per kilometre. In 2019 it initially opened with a diesel locomotive to the airport, a 12 minute wait, a change, and then an electrified section to Jerusalem. But finally in January 2020, the full trip is now possible directly, for just 22 shekels.

The story continues, however, as the section of Jaffa railway which was closed is now being used to build the Tel Aviv metro. Progress on this section is reportedly going well, and is scheduled to open in 2022.


Green Olive offers private tours exploring the rail routes of Israel-Palestine. Please contact us for more information. We will also be launching a 10-day Rail Tour later in 2020 and will post more details when we have them.

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