A ministerial committee approved a controversial plan to build a rail line from Israel’s Mediterranean coast to the Red Sea port city of Eilat Sunday.
The committee approved the plan over objections from environmental groups that say the project would heavily damage the wildlife and scenery throughout Israel’s Negev Desert. Environmental Minister Amir Peretz was the only member of the committee to vote against the plan.
“The fast track to approve the train to Eilat is liable to turn into a fast track to destroying nature in the Negev and damaging the Gulf of Eilat,” he said in a joint statement with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.
Once the Ministerial Committee for Internal Affairs and Services grants its approval, officials will be able to draft detailed plans for every segment of the route.
The 350-kilometer track will connect the center of Israel with the Red Sea resort city and port, with the train scheduled to move at some 250 kilometers per hour. Although the contractor that will build the line has not officially been chosen, the tentative plan is for a Chinese company to handle the project, which is expected to cost some NIS 7 billion ($2 billion).
In February, the plan was approved by the southern district regional planning committee. Three different routes were presented to the committee, which decided in favor of the easternmost track, saying it was the option with the fewest problems. Running the train along the east part of the desert would provide passengers with a view of the desert wilderness, the committee said, adding it was also the safest option, since it intersected the fewest roads and kept away from the most populated areas.
The track will also be out of range from most rockets fired from Gaza.
Acknowledging that the chosen option wasn’t as environmentally friendly as a suggested western route, the committee said the disadvantages of the western route — especially the higher costs and level of risk — were too considerable to ignore.