Today in Transportation History – 1998: An Israeli Railway is (Temporarily) Closed

Pictured: The first Jaffa–Jerusalem train arriving in Jerusalem, 1892

The end of an era in Middle East transportation took place when Amos Uzani, chief executive officer of the state-owned Israel Railways, decided to completely close the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem railway line that had long served as a transit link between those major cities. The final train for this line went out of service just over a month after Uzani’s decision was announced.

The origins of the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem railway line date back to the late 19th century. Construction of a railway connecting Jerusalem with Jaffa (the southern and oldest section of present-day Tel Aviv) began after several decades of determined but ultimately unsuccessful efforts by British financier and philanthropist Moses Montefiore and others to build a transit line in the region. The groundbreaking ceremony for the Jaffa-Jerusalem railway was held in 1890; the area was then under the rule of the Mutasarrifate of Jerusalem, a district of the Ottoman Empire and part of what became widely known at the time as Palestine. The Jaffa-Jerusalem railway was officially opened in 1892.

One of the people who played a critical role in making the railway a reality was a Jerusalem resident and businessman named Yosef Navon. With a great deal of persuasion and persistence, he used his professional and personal connections to obtain authorization from the Ottoman Empire to build the railway. Navon then worked hard to secure the necessary capital for constructing the line. He was eventually awarded both the French Legion of Honor and the Ottoman Empire’s Order of the Medjidie for his efforts on behalf of the Jaffa-Jerusalem railway. The Ottoman Empire also honored Navon with the title of Bey, a designation traditionally bequeathed to tribal chieftains and other leaders.

The Jaffa-Jerusalem railway is generally considered to be the first transportation system of its kind to operate in the Middle East. In addition, the line was instrumental in further opening up Jerusalem to tourism and helping to foster the city’s continued growth. The Jaffa-Jerusalem railway remained in service for several decades until the 1948 Arab-Israeli War shut down its operations. Following the 1949 Armistice Agreements between Israel and its military adversaries, the line was reopened by Israel Railways as the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem railway. Regular passenger service on the newly designated line began in 1950, and the railway continued to operate during the next 48 years.

Since 2001, there have been efforts to build a similar railway likewise connecting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Service on this new line is expected to start sometime during 2018.

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