Light Rail revolution?

Jerusalemites like me now have no other commuting choice.

February 13, 2012 23:43
3 minute read.
Jerusalem light rail

Jerusalem light rail 311. (photo credit: iTravelJerusalem)

Yesterday – a bone-chilling Jerusalem winter morning – my daily commute took twice the usual time, following the recent changes to the Egged bus lines that have marked the status quo of Jerusalem transport for decades.

The new Jerusalem Light Rail, operating since last summer, with the Egged bus company a shareholder, has now changed the complexion of the city. Not just by creating a de facto political reality by running through Arab neighborhoods, nor for the ensuing stone-throwing, but for the way it has transformed commuting in Israel’s capital city.

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So yesterday, instead of a single bus to work, I took – like many others – two buses and the train. I started from my house – waiting five minutes for the “feeder” bus to navigate the five- to seven-minute journey to Mount Herzl, one of the current endpoints of the light rail, where a sign flashes the anticipated arrival time of the next train: 10 minutes.

Then the train rolls – a smooth, pleasant ride, not like the erratic, sometimes terrifying, journeys navigated by Egged drivers – to the central bus station. But the traffic lights are not calibrated, and occasionally the cars zoom past the train, which takes its turn waiting at intersections. Peering out the window, I see Givat Ram, my destination – there it goes – as I pass it, on the right. My “connecting” bus is close to the center of town: the train, also over-crowded – Jerusalemites, like me, now have no other commuting choice – takes me into the middle of rush hour traffic, before my journey continues.

Off the train, and a trek to another bus with a waiting-time of another six minutes. Not only is the bus overcrowded, but the machines installed to “read” the personalized train passes – unlike those on the train itself which are like their counterparts in London and New York – require the driver to press a button, taking about six to eight seconds per passenger.

With sometimes as many as 30 alighting passengers – do the math – it adds even more time to the commute.

At every train station and many bus stops, representatives of City- Pass, the head of the consortium that runs the train, stand, handing out new schedules and booklets which mostly consist of pages with headings such as: “What to do if the bus line you used to take has been either shortened or cancelled.”

When I ask one representative, just a kid really, if there is a complaints line, he offers a tollfree number which turns out to only be an information line, and ‘no,’ the answer is curt when I do call, “there is no manager to whom I might be transferred.”

I later learn that there is a way to register complaints, but not by phone, e-mail or internet, rather by fax. In Israel, the “Start-Up Nation,” the Ministry of Transportation acts – where else do companies or government ministries use fax machines? – like it’s 1978.

The light rail was to take Jerusalem into the 21st century, to make it a venue for new businesses, a place to which young professionals would flock instead of flee. To make Jerusalem a city – in more than one sense of the word – that works. But everyone at the stations seems resigned to their fate. No one seems in a hurry.

Perhaps natives of Jerusalem are just used to forbearing impossible traffic, a corrupt municipality and escalating costs of living.

Or maybe it’s not just the forbearance of the Jerusalem day-to-day, but the suffering of Jewish generations writ large on the faces between the cold rain–drops. And waiting for the train, among the miseries Jews have suffered, is not all that bad.

“It will be OK,” I overhear, and then someone else echoes: “God willing.” But I for one am hoping for more: for intelligent city planning, responsible government and, now, receptiveness to the needs of the citizens of Jerusalem. Last summer, we had a “Cottage Cheese Revolution,” bringing down the cost of one of Israel’s staple foods; maybe now in Jerusalem, we need a “Light Rail Revolution” as well.

The writer lives in Jerusalem. He is a professor of English at Bar-Ilan University.

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