NEXT MONTH is due to see the publication of a report into the feasibility of a rail freight corridor between Eilat and the Mediterranean port of Ashdod. On August 20 Israeli Transport Minister Avigdor Liebermann announced that creation of 'a landbridge alternative to the slow and costly Suez Canal' had been designated as a National Project.

The government has appointed Samuel Slavin, former General Manager at the Ministry of Finance, and now head of the Committee for National Projects, to undertake an initial study and report back by November 30. He will also look at a line between Eilat and the neighbouring port of Aqaba in Jordan.

Construction of the long-planned 183 km route between Eilat and the existing Israel Railways network south of Beer Sheva would enable rail to handle the growing quantity of freight moving by road from the Red Sea port. It is also expected to spur urban and industrial development in the port and along the desert corridor. Liebermann hopes to see 180 km/h passenger trains covering the 350 km between Tel Aviv and Eilat in 2h 30min. Freight trains on the 300 km Eilat - Ashdod axis would take 3h 30min, compared to 8h by road.

On September 13 IR inaugurated passenger services on its 3 km branch to Rishon-le-Zion Rishonim, offering a 19min journey time to Hahagana station in Tel Aviv. The line is expected to handle 1·2 million passengers in the first year, rising to 1·8 million later. The initial hourly service will be increased after the delivery of extra rolling stock in March 2004.

Liebermann expects the 7·5 km branch from Shapirim Junction to Ben Gurion airport to open during March 2004, three months before completion of the airport's third terminal. This will initially have a half-hourly service, later increasing to 4 trains/h. The extension from Ben Gurion to Modi'in is now expected to open in November 2005.