Jerusalem-TA high-speed rail line not on track

State Comptrollers's Report lists a long series of blunders and evidence of mismanagement.

train 88 224 (photo credit: Sybil Ehrlich )
train 88 224
(photo credit: Sybil Ehrlich )
The Knesset State Control Committee meeting on Monday that dealt with the future of the high-speed rail line between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv elicited Knesset members' outrage and disbelief . MKs were presented with highlights from the State Comptroller's Report, which revealed consistent and grievous mistakes by Israel Railways in the handling of the NIS 7 billion project. "In last year's State Comptroller's Report we examined the 31-kilometer-long section between the Anva intersection [near Modi'in] and Jerusalem and found very problematic behavior, reflected in exceptionally large budget deviations, inaccurate estimates and inadequate planning," Assistant State Comptroller Tzvi Vertikovsky said. "It seems that it's hard for Israel to manage infrastructure projects on such a scale, and no doubt fundamental changes to the bodies involved in the project are required for it to be executed." The Tel Aviv-Jerusalem high-speed rail line was born in 2001 out of a desire to reduce traffic on the roads and offer a necessary public service for millions of passengers. The line was supposed to be part of a railroad master plan, which eventually was to network the entire country. The overall plan was budgeted at NIS 20 billion and scheduled to be completed in 2008. Over the years, as the complexity of the venture, which includes extensive tunneling and bridging in difficult terrain, was revealed, the budget ballooned to NIS 29b.; the estimates for completion have been pushed back to 2015. To date, only half of the line - from Tel Aviv to Anva - is complete. The State Comptrollers's Report listed a long series of blunders and evidence of mismanagement, which included faulty planning, insufficient regulation, underestimated expenses, lack of oversight, financial infeasibility and even a case of suspected nepotism. Israel Railway officials still aren't sure of the final costs. "The exact amount to complete the section is NIS 7 billion, but we will only know the project's real cost when it's complete, because we're talking about an especially complicated project, the likes of which has never been attempted in Israel," Israel Railways director-general Yitzhak Harel said at the meeting. MKs were dismayed at what they heard. "Everyone must know that the technology of this project is from the 1950s; it will even be impossible to drive heavy cargo trains on the rail," MK Yisrael Hasson (Israel Beiteinu) said. "This is not how you build a project looking decades into the future." "The findings of the State Comptroller are shocking," MK Nitzan Horovitz (Meretz) said, "and considering the criticism directed at Israel Railways, the question arises as to whether it is capable of operating this type of project. "It's not clear to me how, despite all the infractions, the same body continues with business as usual. The citizens of Israel are unaware of the failures, wrongdoings and scandals that are an inseparable from this project." The committee hearing was also attended by representatives of the the Society for the Protection of Nature and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Israel Railways officials have accused "green" organizations of delaying the project by demanding a change to the plans due to environmental concerns. The environmentalists have suggested changing a portion of the line to include an underground tunnel, in place of a bridge, at the Yalta River, claiming the bridge would cause irreparable damage to the terrain and the ecosystem it supports. According to Shaked Avraham, the Society for the Protection of Nature's preservation coordinator, the organization supports the rail line and realizes its necessity, adding that any claims that the replacement tunnel would further complicate the project are unfounded. "Israel Railways is threatening the public by saying that the environmental alternative will bring about the cancellation of the project," Avraham said. "Their claim is absurd. How will a project that's already half completed and in place be canceled?" MK Edna Adatto (Kadima), representing the residents of Mevaseret Zion, complained that the tunneling work that was planned for the rail line would disperse large amounts of dust and debris in the area, and the local residents should receive a station on the train route for their suffering.