It's 9:45 on Monday morning. The parking lot outside the Malha railway station is only one-quarter full. There is no line at the entrance security check, and travelers leisurely stroll up the escalators to an empty hall to buy their tickets from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.
The train leaves at 9:59 a.m., on schedule. There are about eight seats per passenger, and the train chugs away through Jerusalem's brush-filled mountains and rough, golden terrain. A creek refilled from the rainstorm the day before runs alongside the track. At one point, an Arab shepherd leads his goats across it.
The scene outside the window is tranquil and soothing, but behind the scenes, the road to making the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem line profitable and effective has been rough, jerky and, critics say, has led nowhere.
"The decision to renew the line was faulty to begin with," says transportation consultant Dr. Moshe Hirsh, who was part of an expert team that advised the government as it checked the possibility of renewing the line. "It went against professional opinion."
Originally built in the early 1890s under Ottoman rule, the Jaffa-Jerusalem line ran its first train in 1892. The Israeli government took over its operation with the founding of the state, and Israel Railways operated the same Tel Aviv-Jerusalem route until it was discontinued in 1998.
Under Ariel Sharon the government decided to renovate the track in 2001 as a less expensive, interim solution to train transport between the capital and the metropolis, while Israel Railways began to build the costly high-speed line. The train re-launched in April 2005 from the newly built station in Malha, and stopped at Beit Shemesh, Lod and Ramla before reaching the Hagana Station in Tel Aviv.
Hirsh was part of the team that simulated the ride to forecast its travel time and cost. "The [experts] said that the length of the ride after the renovation would be 85 minutes and not the 55 minutes Israel Railways predicted."
In addition, they warned that costs would be much higher than anticipated. Today, costs have reached NIS 600 million.
"Either they didn't believe our report, which turned out to be correct, or they thought, perhaps, that they needed to build the line for the public good, to connect Jerusalem with other cities."
Maly Cohen, Israel Railways spokesperson, explains that profit wasn't the only motivating factor.
"The railway system is for the public benefit. Trains in Israel, like trains all over the world, are not all built for economic feasibility or for profitable turnover, as is the case with public transportation in general. The assumption was to invest money in infrastructure because it has a general benefit in the prevention of traffic accidents, and air pollution."
Given the length of the ride (about 85 minutes) as well as the peripheral location of the Malha Station, the train wasn't considered by many Jerusalem-Tel Aviv commuters as a desirable alternative to cars and buses. The numbers speak for themselves: only some 1,000 people used the train for daily travel between Israel's two major cities in 2006.
Egged declined to give out "classified business" information on the number of daily Jerusalem-Tel Aviv bus commuters, but a look at its Web site timetable reveals that Egged operates over 130 direct buses daily from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. They start a little before 6 a.m. and run about every 15 minutes. Each bus has a standard seating capacity of 51 - the average number of passengers on each Jerusalem-Tel Aviv train.
ADI COHEN, a resident of Ramat Hasharon who works at the Jerusalem Technological Park right across the street from the Malha station, expresses the popular public complaint with the train.
"At the time I was very glad they opened it because it seemed the most convenient," he says. "It has advantages - you can read, do other things you can't do in a car - but the time it took didn't make it feasible."
He now carpools to Jerusalem, cutting the round-trip by one hour total.
Jerusalem resident Shelly Halachmi-Sussman, who also works at the Technological Park, decided to try the train recently for the first time to attend a meeting in Tel Aviv. Just getting to the central bus station would have taken her an extra 20 minutes.
"Once in a while it doesn't bother me," she says, not long after waking up from a pleasant nap while riding the train. "It's like a trip." But she says she wouldn't use it regularly.
At the end of 2006, in response to the low ridership among Tel Aviv-Jerusalem commuters, Israel Railways changed the service pattern so that trains from Jerusalem now terminate at Beit Shemesh, where passengers transfer to a Tel Aviv-bound train. At some times of day there is no connecting train, and passengers from Jerusalem have to wait up to 48 minutes at the Beit Shemesh Station. The move followed the basic laws of economics: increase supply with demand.
"An analysis of the demand reveals that the Beit Shemesh-Tel Aviv line is used three times more than the Beit Shemesh-Jerusalem line," reads a statement from the Israel Railways press office. "In addition, the demand for the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv line is three times lower than the demand of Beit Shemesh residents."
But the new route got off to a rocky start. On the morning the change went into effect, the train hit a tractor trying to cross the tracks about three kilometers before the Beit Shemesh station. The accident left 31 lightly injured.
Some passengers complained the split wasn't publicized properly.
"When they opened up the Malha train station, a big deal was made. When they shut down the direct service, it was on the quiet," says Esther Singer, a Tel Aviv resident who says she suffers from the split. Now she rides the bus to her job in Jerusalem, which takes her up to five hours total daily.
A few days after the change, some 70 passengers signed a petition expressing their dissatisfaction with the transfer at Beit Shemesh and asking Israel Railways to reinstate the direct line.
"The halting of direct service between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem makes it very difficult for commuters between the two cities," reads the petition. It lists their complaints as follows: The length of the ride is unbearable (90 minutes from Malha to Tel Aviv's Hagana Station); passengers must go down stairs and through a small tunnel to transfer trains, re-exposing them to bad winter weather; the train experiences unnecessary delays, a symptom, the petition charges, of inefficient timetable management.
When asked what the city is doing to improve commuting options between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Gidi Schmerling, Jerusalem Municipality spokesman, offered the following statement: "The municipality works with the government in order to improve transportation to and from Jerusalem, including the new railway line and road number 9."
However, he explained that the government is responsible for most inter-city transport projects.
In a telephone interview, Avner Ovadia, spokesman of the Ministry of Transportation, responded to the complaint made by Jerusalem train commuters: "You have to provide a solution for the majority."
Serving Beit Shemesh, he clarifies, was a top factor in the decision to upgrade the line in the first place. "It was supposed to give an answer to Beit Shemesh and Tel Aviv in addition to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv," he says. "It's important to connect the capital of Israel to other cities. Once you connect it to Beit Shemesh, you connect it to the rest of the chain."
He adds that the upcoming high-speed line will not provide a solution for Beit Shemesh commuters.
Transportation consultant Hirsch sympathizes with the reasons behind the split. But, he adds, the train may have defeated its original purpose - to connect Jerusalem with Beit Shemesh. "Now it's easier for Beit Shemesh residents to travel to Tel Aviv. Once they would have come to Jerusalem."
THE TRAIN arrives in Beit Shemesh on time at 10:38 a.m. It's not rush hour, so the transfer goes smoothly. Passengers walk through a short tunnel to reach the next platform, where the train is waiting.
The carriages are fuller, with a ratio of about four seats per passenger. Jay Haberfield of Ramat Beit Shemesh is among them. He happened to have taken the off-peak train to his job at a bank in Tel Aviv. A few minutes into the ride, he fiddles with some paperwork, and shares his pleasure at the Israel Railways move to split the journey at Beit Shemesh.
"We were experiencing constant delays," he explains. "Before this change Beit Shemesh riders depended on trains coming from Jerusalem, and they constantly came in late five to 15 minutes every day."
As a case in point, he cites the train accident that occurred the day the split went into effect. "Had the change not gone into effect that day it would have been two to three hours late."
On top of that, inbound Jerusalem trains couldn't always accommodate all Beit Shemesh passengers since the winding tracks from Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh could only service trains with a limited number of cars. Now, at peak hours, the Beit Shemesh-Tel Aviv line runs double-decker trains.
So far no statistics are available regarding any hike in the number of Beit Shemesh-Tel Aviv commuters as a result of the split. Any increase, however, has already come at the expense of some Jerusalem residents, rendering the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv line even less frequented.
"I sometimes took the train until they stopped having the direct train," explains Benji, a commuter. "Now I'd have to take the train that leaves at 6:59 a.m. To do that, I'd have to leave my house a little after 6:30 a.m. and I'd get to the train station in Tel Aviv at around 8:30 a.m."
Since he doesn't own a car, he opted for the bus. Riding the bus now, he says, cuts the ride to Tel Aviv by about a half hour.
"The train would have been an option had they met their schedule before they made the split in Beit Shemesh. I would have taken the train much more often. At that point the extra five, 10 minutes made the time even longer, much too long."
A variety of factors affects commuters' decision to choose between train, bus, or car: economics, scheduling, location of residence in Jerusalem and location of Tel Aviv destination. But unless commuters live right near the start or end point, the length of the ride from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv is likely to reach three hours round-trip door to door, no matter which method is chosen.
Talpiot resident Hillel traveled via bus to, and a train from, his job at an insurance company in Tel Aviv before receiving a company car.
"The bus took about 80 to 90 minutes, sometimes a bit more. In the rain it took two and half hours, which was crazy. The train coming back always took 80 minutes, but I haven't taken it since they changed it. I couldn't bear to go now that you have to change trains."
Fortunately, he received the company car, whose relative value is deducted from his salary, not long before the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv split. But driving a car, he warns, is fraught with its fair share of annoyances. "It's too expensive to drive every day from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and it's a nasty ride - it's long, dangerous and tiring."
His experience reveals that during rush hour, a driver is likely to sit in traffic for a minimum of 90 minutes. To avoid a long car ride, he makes a point of traveling off-hours, but is now considering moving to Beit Shemesh, Modi'in or Ra'anana when his lease is up. "If I move to Beit Shemesh I'll take the train every day so I could make productive use of the time, for davening [praying] or working - and meeting people."
But some train commuters, like MBA student and Jerusalem resident Temima Taragin, aren't bothered enough by the split to give up on train transport. She still travels via train to her job right near the Hashalom Station.
"What I like about the train is that it's very quiet and I like doing my school work. This way I'm not distracted by other things at home - television, shopping. If you're there you might as well make the most of it."