Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet on Sunday greenlighted plans to construct a high-speed rail line linking Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean coastline to the city of Beersheba in the southern Negev desert.
"This is a revolution that we always dreamed about. We are carrying it out. This is huge," Netanyahu told ministers at the weekly cabinet session, according to a statement sent to Xinhua.
The prime minister said he personally notified Beersheba Mayor Rubik Danilovich of the decision to approve the project, which is slated to cut travel time between the two cities to 55 minutes.
In parallel, the cabinet announced the inauguration of a rail line linking Tel Aviv to the southern city of Kiryat Gat, with Netanyahu saying that 32 minutes would separate the cities.
Israel currently has no high-speed trains, with all traction provided by diesel-powered locomotives.
The rail lines announced Sunday join a comprehensive multi- billion dollar project to revamp the country's entire transport infrastructure. Planners aim to make Tel Aviv, the economic and cultural hub, reachable in 30-40 minutes from all other major metropolitans at the start of the next decade.
A high-speed rail connecting Jerusalem and Tel Aviv currently under construction by Israel Railways will cut travel time between the two cities from 95 to just over 30 minutes and is scheduled to begin service in 2017.
Earlier this year, the government unanimously approved the construction of a 350 km passenger and freight line linking Tel Aviv to the Red Sea port of Eilat, a five-year project offering a new Asia-Europe trade route to compete with Egypt's Suez Canal.
According to plans, the railway will include 63 bridges spanning some 4.5 kilometers and five tunnels that together will extend some 10 kilometers.
"This is attracting great interest by the world powers such as China and India as well as others," Netanyahu told ministers at the time, noting that Israel has "strategic, national and international" interests vested in such a project and that the country "must become a continental land crossing route and create great power interest."
The premier has suggested that an overland path via the Red Sea to the country's urban center, including ports in Haifa and Ashdod, could greatly shorten the current route Asian shippers use to reach the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal, saving time and high canal-use fees.
The government wants to double the Negev's population to 1.2 million by 2025, and hopes such a rail line would help spur regional development by attracting residents away from the country 's congested center.
"These are great tidings that will dramatically affect the country for the next 50 years," Netanyahu said.
On Sunday, he lavished praise on the transportation and finance ministries for pressing on with the projects, saying they constitute "a great cultural, social and national revolution with tremendous consequences."
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