Jerusalem by rail: What’s the latest on the capital’s light rail lines?

Last week in a dramatic move, CityPass announced its decision to not only not submit to the tender for the Blue and the Green lines, but to completely quit the entire project and leave Jerusalem.

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May 11, 2019 14:59
Jerusalem by rail: What’s the latest on the capital’s light rail lines?

THE RED Line is undergoing two extensions – with one to Neve Yaakov and the other to Hadassa University Medical Center in Ein Kerem.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

The first time officials in Jerusalem began thinking about the need to adapt public transportation to the growing numbers of residents was in 1968.

When the eastern part of the city was annexed to the capital, it transformed from a small city located at a dead-end point surrounded by a frontier to a large city (three times its original width) on its way to becoming a metropolis. The city with the largest population in the country would need modern infrastructure and urban development.

Public transportation was the first goal, and that is how the plan for a new network was conceived. Later on, the city focused on a light rail plan. When it is finished, the public transportation network will include eight lines, backed by a large busing network using public routes and a complex of ring roads around the city to encourage residents and visitors to renounce their private cars and use public transportation.

Thus, the Jerusalem Transportation Master Plan was born, as a joint project of the Jerusalem Municipality and the Transportation Ministry, under the direction of the municipality. For years – for various reasons, mostly lack of approved budgets – the Master Plan staff was off the public radar. Things changed radically in 1995 when the Master Plan was approved by former mayor Ehud Olmert, and approved by the government in 1998. Infrastructure work began in 2000, but the first train did not move on the rails until August 2011 (instead of 2006 as planned).

The Red Line was the first line, connecting Pisgat Ze’ev in the north to Mt. Herzl. It caused massive disruption of daily life in Jerusalem. There were repeated delays, complications, inevitable mistakes, and above all, the Build, Operate, Transfer (BOT) tender conditions were not the best choice to ensure citizens’ interests.

CityPass, the company established to run the line, had its own interests. Eventually, things reached a point where mayor Nir Barkat, elected in 2008, opened his first press conference by announcing his first objective was to cancel the entire project. The project was not shelved, but Barkat managed to get total control of the Master Plan (which had been working as a semi-independent unit) and convinced the government that the BOT system was not to be reused for the next lines planned. As a result, the coming lines – the Blue, the Green and the entire Transportation Plan for the capital – were under complete control, from the state through the municipality. 

NOW THE Red Line is undergoing two extensions – to its original 14-km. route will be added another 9 km., extending from Neve Yaakov to Hadassah University Medical Center in Ein Kerem. Today it has 23 stops, running every six minutes, with 150,000 passengers per day. It runs 23 trains that can transport up to 500 passengers at time with a total of 46 cars. It is expected to reach 220,000 passengers per day with the two extensions.

One of the major complaints against CityPass is that since its first year operating, no car or train has been added to the existing lines, and this creates extreme crowding in coaches at rush hour. That, in addition to public anger at the company’s unfriendly attitude toward passengers – with tickets and fines given without any distinction between cheaters and those who were unable to validate their Rav-Kav, even if the passenger had a daily/monthly pass or if it was due to faulty train scanners – led the authorities to present CityPass with a much less attractive tender for the next lines.

Last week in a dramatic move, CityPass announced its decision to not only not submit to the tender for the Blue and the Green lines, but to completely quit the entire project and leave Jerusalem.

The next tenders will be published soon. The Transport Ministry and the municipality made it clear that they will be in full control; the tender will address the operating company only.

DUE TO major local opposition, the Blue Line project has become a civil activism issue. The segment of about 1 km. (on Emek Refaim St.) of the 20-km. line – which was approved back in 2016 – has raised major opposition from residents. The Blue Line, with 45 trains and 90 cars due to depart every three minutes, will connect Gilo to Ramot, with 42 stops. It is expected to serve a quarter million passengers per day.

Originally, the train was supposed to run through the old rails when it was proposed by mayor Olmert. However, since then, a local civil project that transformed the old rails’ path into a city park required a change in plan. The Messila Park, an urban jewel, had gathered massive support against its eventual harm from light rail construction. The Master Plan staff thus decided to route it through one of the German Colony’s picturesque streets, a decision that caused a fight that is still going on between supporters of Messila Park and those of Emek Refaim. Both sides claimed victory at some point at the local, district and the State Appeal Committee for planning levels. Each side can still appeal to the High Court of Justice.

THE ISSUE is now likely to be in the hands of Mayor Moshe Lion. Emek Refaim supporters claim that Barkat refused to seriously consider the alternative of a tunnel under Messila Park, which would save both the street and the park. Master Plan CEO Zohar Zollan was the former director of Barkat’s municipal election campaign and even wore a campaign shirt on TV, leading some to suspect his impartiality, and they have asked Lion become the decision maker.

Thus far, Lion has resisted taking the reins. He has said he understands the concerns of the German Colony residents, but hasn’t done the one thing they hoped: to declare that he wants to hear from experts on the issue.

In a recent interview with In Jerusalem, Lion said he is willing to do so, but only under the condition that the ministers of Treasury, Construction and Transportation all agree. Currently, Transportation Minister Israel Katz is the only one that has not signed on.

Meanwhile, construction continues on the Green Line, expected to connect Gilo (through Pat Junction) with Mt. Scopus. The cornerstone was laid in May 2018. Construction is expected to take four years, and it will also have an extension that will connect the two Hebrew University campuses – Givat Ram and Mt. Scopus.

Additionally, Israel Railways has begun planning an extension of the line from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem that will continue from the Navon Station at the city entrance to the Kotel. The line will have two stops in the city, both underground, like the Navon stop, under Jaffa Road. It has not yet been decided where the final station will be located. The options are either at Mamilla, under the Old City, or along Jaffa Road by the Dung Gate. The project is estimated to cost NIS 2 billion.


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