The first railway in present day Israel opened between Jaffa (now part of Tel Aviv) and Jerusalem in 1892, when the region then known as Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire. It was 87km in length and built to metre gauge. Before World War I, other railways were constructed in the country, mainly to 1050mm gauge to permit through running of trains from a branch of the Hejaz Railway in neighbouring Syria. Part of the original Jaffa to Jerusalem line was regauged to 1050mm during the War. Several hastily laid 600mm gauge military lines also appeared at this time.
Following World War I, Palestine came under British control through a League of Nations Mandate. A new standard (1435mm) gauge line was constructed to connect the coastal main line through Gaza with the Sinai Railway in Egypt, which gave access to Kantara on the East side of the Suez Canal (but without direct access to the rest of the Egyptian rail network). The main line itself was coverted to standard gauge, as was the Jaffa to Jerusalem line. The coastal line was extended northwards as far as Haifa. The 1050mm gauge line linking with Syria through the Jezreel Valley remained open.
Palestine Railways in the inter-war years were not hugely successful and became gradually run down. Plans for rehabilitations and improvements were put forward but had not come to fruition before the outbreak of World War II. However, during the war the strategic importance of the coastal railway route came to the fore. The coastal railway was linked with that of Lebanon, and in Egypt the Sinai Railway was extended over the Suez Canal. This created a standard gauge through route via the Mediterranean coast all the way from ports in Turkey to the urban areas of Egypt and the North African coast. The line was completed in 1941.
Following Israeli independence in 1948 all international rail links were severed. The narrow gauge Jezreel Valley line closed altogether and the coastal line was curtailed at Nahariyah in the north and Ashdod in the south.
In the early 21st century, work began on the rehabilitation and extension of what was at that time a run down and underused railway system. By 2011, there were 1000 route km of new or refurbished railway in use, with plans for a further 250km in the coming decade. Jerusalem has a new tram system, opened in 2011. Other tram systems are proposed, as well as a tram-train service around Haifa.
In 2014, work began on a line from Haifa to Beit She’an near the Jordanian border. The line partly follows the route of the Palestine branch of the Hejaz Railway. It is intended that the new line will eventually link with the Jordanian rail network.
Flag image from CIA World Factbook