Making Tracks

Civilized, classy and costly in comparison to building a better bus system, the light rail finally arrives in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem light rail 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jerusalem light rail 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
THE DOORS SHUT WITH A whooshing sound. As the car accelerates forward on its path, the ride feels remarkably quiet and smooth to commuters who previously rode only buses through the streets of Jerusalem. It is so quiet, in fact, that it is necessary to ring a bell when the train leaves the station to warn those ambling in its path on Jaffa Road – once chock-a-block with vehicular traffic, but now a pedestrian walkway – that they should get out of the way.
Residents of Jerusalem finally had the opportunity to ride the cars of Israel’s first light rail system in late August, with the inauguration of the Red Line, connecting Pisgat Ze’ev in the city’s northeast with Mt.
Herzl in the southwest. The construction of the Red Line (merely one line out of what had originally been as many as eight planned light rail lines) began in 2002 and the inauguration took place five years behind schedule; the total cost came to over 4 billion shekels ($1.2 b), nearly double the original estimate.
The years of construction, ripping apart Jaffa Road – Jerusalem’s equivalent of Main Street that connects the central bus station and the Old City – embittered many who complained about the noise, dust and upheaval that the massive construction project caused.
Buses were re-routed from main roads to small side streets that could not contain the new volume of traffic. The city’s Traders Association claimed that the construction work caused irreparable economic damage to merchants who were forced to shut shops and restaurants, costing 1,500 jobs.
“All those who complain about the damage that the construction caused in the center of the city forget what it really looked like before [the installation of the light rail tracks]” says Nadav Meroz, Director of the Jerusalem Transportation Masterplan Team (JTMT), somewhat defensively. JTMT, a public body managed by the Ministry of Transport and the Jerusalem Municipality, is charged with the planning of the Jerusalem mass transit system, with the light rail as a centerpiece of those efforts.
“The city center started deteriorating in the 1990s and in a survey conducted in 2000, Jaffa Road was deemed one of the most polluted streets in Israel,” continues Meroz.
“Offices and shops moved out of the center in droves. At the same time, traffic was at a crawl – buses on Jaffa Road traveled at an average of five to eight kilometers per hour.
“That was before the pain caused by the light rail construction.”
Much of the pain seemed to be forgotten in the initial period of service, as the novelty factor and two weeks of free rides drew large crowds of happy-looking passengers.
Post-construction Jaffa Road looks cleaner and livelier than it has in years, its pedestrian- and-tram-only status giving it a fresh atmosphere. “I like the quiet ride and the fact that it is environmentally clean,” says Ilan Nehama, a computer science graduate student at Hebrew University.
“One negative is that the cars can get overcrowded with people and baby strollers.
It would be better if there were ushers to prevent too many people from crowding in,” she continues. “But when it is not crowded, it is a pleasure. I am already riding the light rail to get to the center of the city more often than I took the bus.”
THE IDEA OF INSTALLING A commuter tram system in Jerusalem goes back as far as the 1890s, and the Turkish administration even published an initial tender for light rail construction in 1910. Nothing came of the idea at the time, and it was forgotten as the more pressing political issues facing early 20th-century Jerusalem took precedence.
It was not until the 1970s, after the reunification of the city in the 1967 Six Day War, that integrated long-term transportation plans for Jerusalem were again seriously considered. The post-war population and construction booms led to unprecedented traffic congestion in the city center. Adebate in urban planning circles, which raged for years, pitted supporters of expanding roads for vehicular traffic against the proponents of public transport. Forecasts that the city population would mushroom to 950,000 by 2020 (there are about 750,000 current residents, 2.75 times the population in 1967) gave added urgency to the problem.
By the 1990s, city planners made a definitive decision to favor public transport over private cars, closing off major avenues in the city center to private vehicles and limiting the number of public parking lots.
Planners took trips to comparably sized cities in France and Germany, where they were impressed by the combinations of pedestrian-only areas and light rail that prevented the historical centers of those cities from being overrun by private cars.
“We hired German transportation experts, Hamburg Consultants and Lahmeyer International, to conduct a major study of what needed to be done to save the city center,” says Meroz. “European historical cities had already dealt with the question of how to stop trends of deterioration before us, in the 1960s and 1970s. Their answer was clear: fewer private cars, more mass transit.”
The contract for constructing and operating the first light rail line, the Red Line, was awarded to CityPass, a consortium with significant French membership: the French engineering company Alstom has a 20 percent stake, and the main operator of the line, the French multinational Veolia Transport, owns 5 percent of the consortium. The other CityPass partners include Israeli financiers Harel and Polar Investments and the Haifabased construction firm Ashtrom. CityPass received a 30-year concession to build and operate the line as a for-profit venture.
DESPITE ALL THE HURDLES along the way, the Red Line, with its 23 stations along 13.8 kilometers of track, has been operating smoothly since it began taking on passengers. The 46 French-made Citadis trains running along the route, each consisting of five cars, are sleek, modern and clean.
One source of frustration is that the planned system that will give the light rail priority over cars at traffic lights has not yet been installed, and this severely slows the travel times of the trains. “When the traffic-light priority system installation is completed, the light rail running time will be much shorter,” Ozel Vatik, CityPass’s spokesman, promises The Report. “This will be especially important during peak hours, when light rail timing will be precise and reliable.”
Under ideal conditions, the light rail journey along the Red Line from one terminus to the other is expected to take 40 to 45 minutes, with a peak frequency of 4.5 minutes between trains, dropping to 12 minutes at night. The trains, which run from 5:30 a.m. to midnight daily, except on Shabbat, are expected to carry as many as 100,000 passengers a day at an average speed of 22 kilometers per hour, with a single ride costing 6.40 shekels, the same as a bus fare. The city has issued “smart card” electronic tickets that can be used for bus and rail rides, with the possibility of transferring from bus to rail or vice versa over a 90-minute time period for one fare.
The light rail will still be considered to be in “experimental” mode for at least four months.
Yet JTMT is already hard at work planning the future of transportation in the city. It is considered so vital to the future of the city that the Transportation Ministry and the Jerusalem Municipality have granted it an annual budget of 250 million shekels ($7.15 m).
The core staff of JTMT is comprised of 25 employees from various backgrounds in planning and engineering, with many of them bringing years of experience to the job. Meroz is an 11-year veteran of JTMT, having previously attained advanced degrees in urban planning and an MBA. In appearance and manner he resembles a high ranking corporate manager, exhibiting mastery of facts and figures presented with a sober approach. He frequently reaches for a wealth of charts and visual aids available in the JTMT office along Jaffa Road in order to get his points across.
JTMT’s mandate also includes planning the future of the city’s bus service. Although it has received much less attention than the light rail, a bus rapid transit (BRT) line has existed for some time, running from Har Homa in the city’s southeast to Har Hotzvim in the northwest.
In BRT systems, lanes along the entire route of a BRT line are reserved for buses only, enabling them to avoid traffic snarls and operate with timetables almost as reliable as light rail lines.
In an effort to improve the quality of bus service in the city, JTMT is planning a major overhaul of all the covered bus stops – over 1500 throughout the city – installing advanced passenger information service boards that will inform passengers of the expected arrival time of the next bus. Meroz envisions a fully integrated high-tech bus system, with a command and control center similar to the central control station that the light rail system depends on.
Buses will be outfitted with GPS tracking systems so that central control will be able to keep tabs on the exact location of every single bus at any time. That information will then be fed into the passenger information service to inform commuters of their expected waiting time. The bus central control station will also be given authority, under the proposed system, to take control of traffic lights and give priority to buses, if traffic is causing them to fall too far behind schedule.
“We can engineer ‘green routes’ [bus routes in which traffic lights are prioritized to switch to green when buses approach],” says Meroz. “A standard bus stop costs 18,000 shekels ($5,145) to construct. The advanced bus stops, with full passenger information services, cost 60,000 to 70,000 shekels ($17,150 to $20,000) apiece, but we believe it is well worth the investment.”
MANY OTHER CITIES HAVE mass transportation systems, but, given its history and politics, Jerusalem is not like many other cities. The route of the Red Line, which skirts the Old City and crosses through territory that was annexed by Israel after the Six Day War, has sparked political controversy. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement launched a campaign to dissuade the French partners in the CityPass consortium from pursuing the project, resulting in the Dutch ASN Bank divesting from Veolia and the Swedish pension fund AP7 selling its holdings in Alstom. Veolia signed a principle agreement to sell its shares to the Israeli cooperative Egged for 45 million shekels in late 2010, but it is contractually bound to operate the Red Line for at least five years.
Meroz stresses that his office gives as much attention to providing the Arab sector of Jerusalem with improved public transport as it gives to the Jewish sector. “Many people don’t know that public transport in East Jerusalem is serviced by Arab bus companies there, not Egged,” points out Meroz, “and even those who know that are often unaware that there are no less than 17 separate bus companies [in East Jerusalem], who were in operation before 1967, some with charters dating back to the Ottoman Empire. We always have and will continue to honor their right to continue operating their bus routes.”
In an effort to modernize and optimize bus service in East Jerusalem, in which 330 buses take to the streets daily carrying 97,000 passengers, JTMT, in cooperation with the union of East Jerusalem bus companies, has standardized their bus routes and schedules, printing new color-coded multilingual timetables that contain information on all possible bus routes.
JTMT, which is also charged with planning future road transportation needs for the city, includes in its plans construction of a major motorway to the city’s east, entirely beyond the Green Line, that will effectively connect Bethlehem and Ramallah while bypassing Jerusalem. “Under any future political constellation,” says Meroz, choosing his words carefully, “there will be a need for major roadwork to the east, to bear the considerable traffic flowing from Bethlehem to Ramallah, which does not need to travel through the Jerusalem. Constructing such a road will benefit everyone.”
Palestinian spokesmen, however, express forceful objections to the transportation changes in East Jerusalem conducted by Israeli authorities. “At the macro-political level, there is clearly a conflict here,” says Dr.
Rami Nasrallah, Chairman of the International Peace and Cooperation Center, a Jerusalem-based Palestinian NGO studying social, economic, political and urban transformation processes in the city. “The light rail passes through occupied territory and strengthens Israeli settlement activity. It harms daily life in Palestinian neighborhoods in terms of trade and transportation, reducing road lanes connecting Beit Hanina [in northern Jerusalem] and Ramallah.”
Hussam Wattad, director of the Beit Hanina Community Center, tells The Report that residents of that neighborhood have expressed opposition to the light rail construction.
“We used to have two lanes of road in each direction, but the light rail reduced that to one lane in each direction,” he says. “This is a very crowded area, and the loss of lanes is keenly felt. [The authorities] could at least have built alternative roads. Some residents [of Beit Hanina] will use the light rail and some will not. We can get to the Old City in various ways, not necessarily by light rail. What we do want is more road investment here.”
Wattad declines to comment on political aspects of the rail construction. “What’s been built is done already, it is a fact,” he says.
“And this is not the only Israeli construction being done in occupied territory.”
“There is no way we can be accused of running an ‘apartheid’ public transport system,” says Meroz. “The Red Line [light rail] has a station in Shuafat [an Arab neighborhood].
All information related to the light rail, including announcements on the public address system on the trains, is given in three languages, Hebrew, Arabic and English.
Major Muslim holidays can draw as many as 250,000 people to the Old City, straining public transport beyond current capacity. We are working on solving that as well.”
History also has a way of interfering with planning and construction in Jerusalem, even when a modernistic light rail project is involved. During drilling work for the laying of the tracks for the Red Line in Shuafat, archaeological remains of a settlement from the second century was found. The site, which included a bathhouse and rows of houses, indicated to archaeologists that Jewish settlements in the Jerusalem area existed at least until the year 135. The archaeological rescue dig that ensued caused extensive construction delays. According to representatives from the Israel Antiquities Authority, “salvation digs,” which are mandated by law before any public project can proceed, have also uncovered other archaeological sites, but most, they insist, have little historical or touristic value.
THE ORIGINAL PLANS FOR EIGHT light rail lines have undergone major revisions since they were first proposed.
JTMT’s plans now envision the construction of two more light rail lines in addition to the existing Red Line. A proposed Green Line will connect the large shopping mall in Malha with Mt. Scopus, running through the Bar-Ilan junction, and a proposed Blue Line (currently serviced by bus rapid transit) will go from Gilo in the south to Ramot in the north, passing along the way by the Khan theater and the Har Hotzvim technological park.
The construction of the Green and Blue light rail lines is relatively far in the future. In the nearer future, the Red Line is scheduled for expansion, to Neve Yaakov in the north and to the Ora junction in the south, eventually perhaps extended to Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem. There are also plans to construct spurs extending from the main Red Line track to the Hebrew University campuses on Givat Ram and Mt. Scopus, to service a large student population that is expected to comprise a significant subpopulation of rail commuters. A further spur to Har Nof in the west is also being mulled, because of the heavy Haredi component in the population using public transportation in Jerusalem.
As Jerusalemites have learned over the past decade, constructing a light rail line can be a frustratingly slow process. Simply reserving statutory rights to run tracks, even on publicly owned property, can be an involved undertaking.
“Every available open area is liable to be ‘stolen’ [earmarked for other purposes], if we don’t insist on reserving it for a public transport corridor,” complains Meroz. “We now have a commitment that every public-use plan submitted to the municipality must obtain our approval before it can be implemented, to avoid situations in which our statutory rights are taken by others.”
And construction involves much more than just laying the tracks. “Out of the 4.1 billion shekels that it cost to construct the Red Line, 500 million shekels went to improving the infrastructure [under and around the tracks], some of which had not been touched since the time of the British and even Ottoman administrations,” Meroz tells The Report.
“We brought an engineer from Strasbourg, France, and, as a result, we have even spent money on cleaning the stones on old buildings along the tracks, replacing windows, planting trees and installing new benches. What passengers see from the trains is also a part of the passenger experience.”
One thing that appears to be certain is that future light rail lines will not be constructed by private companies under build-operate-transfer contracts, and will instead be built as municipal projects. The city of Jerusalem had several disputes with CityPass during the construction of the Red Line, some of which ended up in court, and no one seems keen to see a repeat of that situation.
“Mayor Nir Barkat does not like the idea that major decisions, such as where and when to dig, are not under municipal control,” Meroz says.
“We also need to consider the possibility of unforeseen delays, as when a single resident of Herzl Street was able to delay Red Line construction for months by filing an objection in court. When a private company is involved, each such delay has serious budget implications. If construction is the responsibility of a city department, the monetary loss is less painful.”
But why invest in light rail when BRT lines can achieve nearly the same results as light rail at a fifth of the cost. “Many municipalities across the world have preferred to have bus rapid transit rather than light rail,” says Shlomo Hasson, professor of urban planning at Hebrew University.
“So why do some municipalities opt for the light rail? The answer is very simple and has to do with psychological motives of self-aggrandizement: making an imprint on the urban landscape through a prestigious project. Unfortunately we are all paying the price for this vanity.”
Unsurprisingly, Meroz does not agree. “BRT was invented in South America, in low budget conditions,” he tells The Report. “Light rail is more than just transportation; it improves public space. Light rail has revitalized city centers in France and other European countries. It is a permanent fixture that you can count on. And it has many other benefits: one train can carry 500 passengers – no bus can do that. BRT is a solution for Third World countries, and we aspire to more than that.”
JTMT IS ALSO CURRENTLY designing bicycle paths and vehicular road construction. Plans are being drawn up for the construction of 97 kilometers of new bicycle paths, connecting with 20 kilometers of existing paths for a total of 117 kilometers of bicycle-friendly paths and lanes.
In road work, JTMT promises major changes in coming years. Route 1, the main road connecting Jerusalem to the coastal plain to the west, will in many places be expanded to three lanes in each direction from the current two lanes. A tunnel, through the Castel ridge to the city’s west, will reduce commuter times, while the Motza hairpin curve, scene of many traffic accidents, will be straightened by the construction of a bridge.

Within the city, the busy French Hill intersection, a major daily bottleneck, will be split into multiple levels to ease congestion and a new road, Route 20, will reduce some of the pressure on the French Hill intersection, while another will connect the Beit Hakerem neighborhood to Route 1 directly, bypassing the crowded main entrance to the city. The Begin motorway will be extended, enabling motorists to cross the entire city from south to north without encountering a traffic light. In the longterm, an outer ring of roads will spare the city center from bearing traffic whose final destination is not the center itself.
Meroz brims with optimism about the future of transportation in the city. “Large budgets have been made available for our plans,” he says, smiling. “For public transportation, including the next stage of light rail construction, we have a three billion shekel (nearly $1 b.) budget from the Ministry of Transport, and five billion shekels ($1.4 b.) for the construction of an outer ring of roads. The Ministry is like a cow that wants to feed its calf to enable it to grow; it wants to give money to the city to get the best possible transportation system.
This is the time to move forward and integrate our means of transport in the right way to meet the city’s needs for years to come.”