ISRAEL RAILWAYS reopened its line to Jerusalem with the introduction of a new timetable on April 9, which also saw the launch of passenger services to Ashkelon.

Transport Minister Meir Shitrit and IR General Manager Yossi Mor joined the celebrations to mark the reopening to Jerusalem after a seven-year suspension of services. Reconstruction of the 35 km from Beit Shemesh over 29 months cost US$125m.

IR is now operating 15 trains in each direction between Tel Aviv Savidor and Jerusalem, covering the 84 km in 80min; of these four trains call at Biblical Zoo Halt. Most trains are worked with IC3 DMUs, including the first two of 10 second-hand sets that IR is buying from Sweden.

The 15 km Ashdod - Ashkelon line opened for freight traffic 57 years ago; upgrading for passenger operation has cost US$54m. There are 27 trains a day between Tel Aviv and Ashkelon, with a journey time of 60min; this will be cut to 45min and the service doubled to half-hourly when double-tracking is completed later this year.

Yossi Mor confirmed in March that ridership in the first two months of 2005 was 16·6% up on the previous year, with over 2 million passengers carried in February. He expects the railway to handle a total of 26 million passengers during the current year.

According to the Ministry, the first section of the planned Ashkelon - Beer Sheva line will be opened in 2007, with the rest of the 70 km route to be completed a year later at a cost of US$216m; it will serve the towns of Shderot, Netivot and Ofakim.

IR Chairman Moshe Leon says that the company plans to raise US$455m in June through the sale of government-backed 15-year bonds. This is part of a programme to raise US$1·82bn towards the US$4·55bn cost of IR's current five-year expansion programme.