British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by J. Y. Vatikiotis (Ex-Palestine Railways Official)
Palestine Railways and Ports
Jaffa Gate, 1898
Before going into details concerning the construction and development of the Railway net and Ports in Palestine, it might be of interest first to refer, briefly, to the conditions and means of transportation which existed in that colony before World War I and during that War.

Excepting the one metre gauge railway line between Jaffa and Jerusalem and the 105 cm gauge line which linked up Haifa with Syria and the Hejaz, means of transportation over the other parts of the country was old-fashioned and in some regions non-existent. Movement of passengers between the large towns was carried out by the use of horse-drawn eight-seat vans on unpaved roads and by horse-drawn three-seat carriages within the towns.

Travels between small towns and villages were done on animal back - camels, horses, mules, etc. - and by foot in journeys of comparatively short distances. In certain regions the roads were impassable and without any sign posts; people had to orient themselves by making frequent tiresome "reconnoitering journeys" to trace their desired destination. Goods and household effects of limited load were conveyed by horse-drawn carts and by animals - chiefly camels.

Palestine Railways and Ports
Jerusalem Railway Station
As regards the Palestine Railways in particular, their beginning is seen in the 1890s when a French company constructed a metre gauge line between Jaffa and Jerusalem covering a distance of 88 kilometres approximately. This line served passengers travelling between the said two towns and those arriving in the country from abroad - mostly Christian pilgrims wishing to visit Jerusalem.

Another venture followed the above in 1905 when the Ottoman Government opened the 105 cm gauge railway line between Haifa and Deraa linking it up with the "Pilgrims" Railway through the Hejaz to Medina and from Deraa to Syria and Jordan (Deraa was a junction station in Jordan). Ambitious merchants and other business men from various parts of the Middle East took advantage of the opening of this route and together with pilgrims, flocked into the Hejaz which began to awake from its 1000 years long sleep.

Palestine Railways and Ports
Obviously the aforesaid two ventures had covered just a small part of the designed network that was to be completed after the lapse of 13 years first by the British forces and later by the British Mandatory Government.

Recorded facts reveal that the construction of the 4 ft. 8V2 ins. gauge railway line between El Kantara on the eastern side of the Suez Canal and Haifa was effected by the Royal Engineers of the victorious troops of Field Marshal Allenby during World War I and parallel to their advance from Egypt towards Palestine. The line was built in two sections, first that between El Kantara (Egypt) and Deir El Balah (Palestine) and later that between Deir El Balah and Haifa, a total distance of 415 kilometres. Besides rail-laying proper, the works included those of water supply, electric power, station buildings, telegraph and telephone communications, etc. for the execution of which the Royal Engineers deserve every praise. Laying of water pipes through the barren desert of Sinai carried the Nile water into Palestine, a most significant project in this venture.

The section of the line El Kantara-Rafa in Sinai (Egyptian territory), while operated by the Palestine Railways, was owned by H.M. Government and named "Sinai Military Railways" . The Narrow Gauge (105 cm) Hejaz Railways in Palestine and Jordan was held in trust by the Government of Palestine.

Until 1920 El Kantara East was the base of the British Mihtary Headquarters which also included the General Management of the Railways, their Workshops, Power House, Depots and other installations.

Palestine Railways and Ports
Palestine Railways Poster
With the conversion of the one metre gauge Jaffa-Jerusalem line to the 4 ft. 8V2 ins. standard gauge, the entire railway net, excepting the 105 cm gauge Haifa-Deraa- Jordan, operated on the universal standard gauge system.

On taking over, the British Mandatory Government proceeded with the work of development such as the extension of existing lines, rebuilding of stations, enlarging of marshalling yards and the training of the staff in their respective duties. It also provided railway siding facilities to the industrialists and traders to serve their factories, warehouses and other places of business where direct loading and offloading of merchandise could be possible at the factory.

The final touches needed for linking Palestine with the trunk lines in the North and so with Europe were added in 1942 when the Haifa-Beirut-Tripoli railway line was built. This line was initially intended for military purposes during World War II but was subsequently acquired by the Lebanese Government. It was to be opened for public traffic and would have made Palestine once more the bridge between Africa, Asia and Europe. Unfortunately, the scheme remained as a design only and was never implemented consequent upon the termination of the mandate in Palestine and the Arab-Israeli war that followed.

Palestine Railways and Ports
Military Traffic at Haifa, 1946
Through passenger trains between Haifa and El Kantara and vice versa with train connection to Egypt and Palestine respectively were run daily providing first, second and third class accommodation in comfortable coaches with "Farrashes" (Attendants) to meet passenger errands and maintain cleanliness on trains; sleeping cars and dining cars were also attached to these trains affording restful travel.

Punctual and quick ferry boats, provided by the Suez Canal Company at El Kantara, carried passengers across either side of the Canal to continue travel to their destination. Similar restful travels were also provided on trains running on other lines of the country. Saloons were being provided for the travel of distinguished personalities and senior government officials.

High Class Tourists in considerable numbers from Europe and the USA began visiting the country shortly after the end of World War I, and tourist trains were being appropriately marshalled for their travels within the country and to rail-linked neighbouring countries.

The Palestine Railways were well equipped with locomotive power and modern goods wagons for the transport of all goods traffic within the country or in transit to neighbouring countries. In addition to the standard types of open and covered wagons, refrigerator vans were available for perishable traffic and tankswagons for the conveyance of liquids in bulk including inflammables.

Palestine Railways and Ports
1948 Infrastructure Map
Goods train services were run regularly with through services operating between the principal stations and pickup services covering intermediate points. Livestock was conveyed in cattle wagons and despatched by the first available train service immediately after loading, and, in certain circumstances, attendants travelled with consignments of livestock. Wagons loaded with through booked consignments to and from Egypt were carried across either side of the Suez Canal at El Kantara on rail-linked "Wagon Transporter" at the rate of four ten-ton wagons per trip. Exchange of wagons with neighbouring countries was carried out through "Wagon Movement Control Offices" established at assigned locations.

The Palestine Railways which operated efficiently along European lines constituted the largest transport enterprise in the country in which different denominations worked together to provide a public transport service. It can be said in this regard that Israel, the successor Authority, has benefited a great deal assuming the administration by a well organised railway and other Government Services of the Mandatory Government, together with their well trained personnel.

Rules and Regulations books and other documents relating to the operation of the railways in Palestine are now available at the Rhodes House and Bodleian Libraries.


Nearly all the present sea and inland water ports in Palestine were in existence long before World War I, but not to the same modern standard in which they appear today. The administration of the ports of Palestine comprising the sea port of Haifa, Jaffa (including Tel Aviv Lighter Harbour), Acre, Gaza and the inland water port of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee and the inland water port of the Dead Sea was undertaken by the General Manager of the Palestine Railways in his capacity of Ports Authority. The two principal sea ports, namely Haifa and Jaffa, were in the charge of Port Managers who also controlled the minor sea and inland water ports of their respective areas.

Haifa Port

Palestine Railways and Ports
Palmer Plan for Haifa
Before World War I, during the Ottoman regime. Acre port - 18 kilometres north of Haifa - was the principal sea port; Haifa at that time had only a lighter harbour. Acre, being then one of the important commercial centres in the Middle East, its port warehouses provided transit accommodation for the storage of goods, chiefly corn and other cereal products, from Palestine, Jordan and Syria preparatory to their shipment to various destinations within the country and abroad. But the importance of the sea port of Acre began to fade consequent upon the building of the railway lines between Haifa - Jordan and Syria in 1905 and upon the development of the railway net between El Kantara (Egypt) and Haifa and other areas at the end of World War I. The Mandatory Government proceeded with the fundamental reconstruction and enlargement of the sea port of Haifa rendering it one of the most important sea ports in the Mediterranean, consistent with the geographical situation of Palestine in that area. The relative works were executed under the direct supervision of prominent engineers and were completed in 1934-1935.

Palestine Railways and Ports
Haifa Port, 1933
As developed, Haifa port consisted of a deep water harbour with a total water area of 1,000,000 metres squared enclosed by a main breakwater 760 m long; principal docking facilities comprise the main wharf; a cargo jetty and an oil jetty, the latter enclosed in an oil dock in which all bulk oil was handled. Submarine pipe lines extend into Acre Bay and enable ships to load and discharge bulk oil. It is worthwhile mentioning in this regard that before the Arab-Israeli War oil from Iraq was being directly conveyed to Haifa Oil Refineries through the Iraq-Haifa pipeline of the Iraq Petroleum Company.

Modern transit accommodation provided 23000 metres squared of covered storage space. Rail connection to all areas in the harbour and adequate cargo facilities were provided. The port was equipped with two steam tugs, 80 lighters and numerous small towing tugs and launches.

Jaffa Port (Southern Section)

Palestine Railways and Ports
Jaffa Shoals
Before the reconstruction and development of the ports in Palestine, Jaffa Port was a difficult harbour due to its situation on the one hand and to the lack of initiative by the ruling Ottoman authorities to improve it on the other. In winter, ships frequently avoided calling at the port; disembarking of passengers was carried out under dangerous circumstances from ship to feluccas over huge waves centralizing and raging in a rocky strait.

Palestine Railways and Ports
Palmer Plan for Jaffa
As developed, Jaffa Port consisted of an open roadstead port with a lighter basin; secure anchorage in the roadstead of 14 to 18 metres depth. The lighter basin was enclosed in a breakwater of 480 metres in length and contained a water area of 41 square metres of a maximum depth of 2 metres. Three quays in the basin provided berthing facilities for lighters and other small craft.

Jaffa (Northern Section)

Constructed after World War I, it comprised Tel Aviv Lighter Harbour, the property of the Marine Trust Ltd. The Harbour consisted of a roadstead with an enclosed lighter basin covering 1400 square metres dredged to a maximum of 2 metres. The port was operated by the Trust, subject to supervision in certain administrative matters by the Port Manager, Jaffa.

The Port of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee.

The water limits of the port embraced all the water area of the Lake. Port facilities are limited to a privately owned enclosure which served both passenger and cargo requirements and a small passenger jetty. Transport facilities were provided by privately owned launches and boats.

The Port of Jodeida on the Dead Sea

The port which consisted of three jetties, was used principally in connection with development of the large potash industry which was established there. One of the jetties was used mainly for the landing and embarkation of passengers travelling by the British Overseas Airways Corporation flying boat services.

The main enactment governing the administration and operation of the ports in Palestine was the Ports Ordinance.

I must emphasise that the narrative outlined in this paper solely refers to the state of the Railways and Ports in Palestine as reconstructed and developed by the British Mandatory Government.

British Colony Map
1944 Map of Palestine Mandate
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 53: April 1987


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