The Right Side of the Tracks


In Jerusalem, Sept. 26, 1892, was quite a day. Everyone who mattered had gathered outside the city's very first train station, a Baroque building in the German Colony.

The Turkish pasha and the Turkish governor of Jerusalem were there, plus dignitaries from Constantinople and European consuls. As a Turkish band played, sheep were slaughtered and their blood sprinkled on the new railroad tracks – for luck, it was said. Finally, Jerusalem's first train – an "iron monster spitting sparks of fire" – rolled into the new station. One rabbi said he could hear the sounds of the Moshiach approaching.

A train in Jerusalem had long been desired. In 1831, when the first transcontinental railroad opened in England, Sir Moses Montefiore proposed the same thing for Jerusalem, but it took a half-century to come about. The delay meant that Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the linguistic monomaniac who had taken upon himself the mission to restore the Hebrew language to the land, had time to coin a Hebrew word for train – rekevet – derived, it is said, from the word for "rider" that appears in Ezekiel 27:20.

The monstrous steam machine was notoriously slow. Hissing, steaming and shuddering, that first train took three hours and 50 minutes to make the 55-mile run from Jaffa to Jerusalem, partly slowed by the half-mile ascent.

E.A. Reynolds-Ball, a visiting missionary at the time, wrote: "It requires only an ordinary amount of activity to jump out and pick the flowers along the line, and rejoin the train as it laboriously pants up the steep ascent," adding that he'd done it himself.

In the 1920s, Israel's trains were upgraded and expanded by the British; after statehood, in 1948, they were taken over by the new government. But by 1998, the old tracks had deteriorated, and passenger service to Jerusalem was suspended while new track was laid.

On April 9, 2005, the Jerusalem line was restored with much fanfare (though no sheep were slaughtered), and the scenic new ride has proven to be enormously popular – more popular than anyone expected, apparently.

Perhaps because the grand opening coincided with the Pesach holiday – when all Israel hits the road – the number of people who wanted to ride completely overwhelmed the facilities.

Reports of stranded passengers, nonworking toilets, fist fights among passengers competing for seats, sick children and obnoxious teens made television news for days. The print media chimed in with editorial criticism, all in the "What did they expect?" mode.

"We did anticipate heavy traffic that week," says Benny Noar, Israel Railways spokesman. "We laid on extra trains and more carriages, but on one day alone, there were 30,000 passengers.

"On most days," he adds, "passengers can sit comfortably, drink coffee, read or work."

The Sheer Beauty of It
So what's the new Lod-to-Jerusalem train ride really like?

It's magnificent. The bright, clean cars – some double-deckers for better views – have comfy deep-blue seats arranged in four-seat conversation groups surrounding a sturdy table. The aisles are wide, the air-conditioner works, semi-transparent shades keep out hot sun, and the bathrooms function just fine – most even have paper, something one doesn't always encounter in the Middle East.

A snack trolley cruises the aisles with cold drinks, huge soft pretzels and kosher sandwiches. An adult round trip, Lod to Jerusalem, costs NIS 30 (about $6.75). Children and seniors pay even less. As bargain entertainment, it's tough to beat.

But physical comfort is just the beginning. It's the scenery on the hourlong trip that's the real attraction, the chance to see the sheer beauty of this exquisite land of ours.

The Lod-to-Beit Shemesh segment is especially fascinating for the panorama of Israeli agriculture it offers, something most visitors won't see. This week, lush deep-green cotton was just starting to sport tiny yellow flowers; sunflowers were lifting their huge yellow-orange heads; and fruit trees were everywhere. Most wheat had been harvested, but the thrashed acres were dotted with shaggy squares of cattle feed.

Dark-green corn was just tasseling out, with stocks about 10 feet tall. Row crops were thriving, even though it's not always possible to distinguish one from another, now that the train travels considerably faster than it did in the old days.

Rows of artichokes were easy to identify, and heavy grape vines were so perfect they looked like a painting. Melons were still in the fields, and everywhere new orchards were sprouting. Long, low greenhouses looking like gossamer Quonset huts shelter more tender plants inside.

It was fun to peek into the backyards of housing developments, too; many homes had private gardens, and bougainvillea in deep red, orange and white spilled out over fences, around rock walls and cascaded over ancient buildings. Horses and donkeys browsed in some areas, sheep in others.

Once the train passes through Beit Shemesh, the landscape changes. Fields and farms give way to rocky outgrowth, and as the train starts the steep ascent into Jerusalem, pine and olive trees predominate, some of them buttressed by ancient stone terraces.

As the miles passed, the hand-made rock retaining walls became more and more impressive. Over the centuries, tens of millions of rocks have been stacked to create rock terracing, preventing erosion on the steep slopes.

Riding the train in both directions is best, to see the very different views from each side of the train. On the uphill side, the scenery tends toward stands of trees, rock walls and ancient structures. On the downhill side, an honest-to-goodness whitewater river cascades over rocks, weaving around curves, bubbling up and spilling over low dams. The river parallels the train tracks for the better part of the trip, but if you're on the wrong side of the train, you'll miss the postcard-perfect scene.

'Bedlam' on Fridays, Sundays
If there is a problem with the old/new railroad – which runs more or less the same path as its 1892 ancestor – it's the location of the new Malcha station, which is near the Malcha Mall and Teddy Stadium, in the south neighborhood of Manahat.

The station itself is lovely – Jerusalem stone and glass. But it's quite a distance from anything else, so if you want to go anywhere else in the city, you'll need to ride a bus – several stop nearby – or take a taxi, since the Malcha station is several miles from the city center.

Then, too, at least as of this writing, no food or drink is yet available in the station itself. Presumably, that will change, but if your plan is to ride the Jerusalem train anytime soon, pack a lunch and bring water – even the mall isn't especially close, if you're walking.



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