Analysis: Too few trains, too many passengers

Those lucky enough to squeeze onto the Jerusalem light rail starting tomorrow can expect teething problems.

Jerusalem light rail 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jerusalem light rail 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Unless there are more unexpected last-minute surprises, Israel’s first urban light-rail line will begin operating on Friday. This historic event will not be accompanied by any celebrations, ribbon- cutting ceremonies or arcane speeches by politicians. Despite their well-known lust for such events, Israel’s politicians have learned that after so may breakdowns, flaws, delays and disappointments, they will take no risk with the Jerusalem light rail.
The Jerusalem light rail that will finally leave the station on Friday is a mere shadow of what the government promised the capital’s residents. Although this is only the initial period, after which the train is supposed to achieve its promised performance, no one knows if that will happen in weeks or months.
Meanwhile, the light rail will crawl on tracks from Pisgat Ze’ev in the north, along Jaffa Street in the city center, to Mount Herzl in the west. The train will need one hour and 10 minutes to make the 13.8-kilometer journey, compared with the 42 minutes promised in the contract between the government and the franchisee, CityPass.
The biggest problem is the headway – the waiting time for the next train. It is supposed to be four to five minutes during peak hours and eight minutes in off-peak hours. In practice it will be 10-12 minutes. This means that the light rail will be unable to carry all the passengers waiting for it, and it will offer no better service to Jerusalem’s residents than Egged buses.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that as long as the train does not meet its frequency requirement, there is no point in replacing the current bus routes with a network of feeder lines to the train, which would only funnel passengers to a train that cannot pick them up.
The reason for the huge difference between promise and performance is the “smart traffic lights” system that is supposed to guarantee the light rail priority at intersections. CityPass claims that needless bureaucratic demands by the Jerusalem Municipality and the Transportation Ministry delayed the installation of the smart traffic lights.
The municipality and ministry naturally blame CityPass, claiming that it knew about the requirements in advance but did not prepare in time.
CityPass asked to again postpone commercial operation of the light rail by two more months, but the arbitrators in its dispute with the government rejected the request.
Last month, the arbitrators set August 19 as the launch date, come what may.
They are also fed up by the endless delays in getting the train on track. City- Pass has been working feverishly to install the smart traffic lights, but only 20 of the 60 lights are in place to date.
Worse still, the pace of installation will slow to a crawl when the light rail begins commercial operations; CityPass estimates that it will take several months until all the smart traffic lights are installed.
The headway problem is not the only big problem. Last week it was discovered that the bus and train tickets are not synchronized. Only a few weeks ago it was decided that the NIS 6.40 train fare will be valid for 90 minutes for a bus.
But a trial run discovered that trains cannot read bus tickets and vice versa.
Even though nothing prevented solving this problem weeks ago, the Transportation Ministry dragged its feet until the last moment, and now the faults will be there for all to see.