A long and winding rail

The light rail system, one of the largest and costliest projects in Jerusalem’s history at an estimated NIS 30 billion, will at completion offer eight lines covering the entire city.

In dispute: The ideal location for the Blue Line – Mesilla Park (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
In dispute: The ideal location for the Blue Line – Mesilla Park
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
In 1867, the Templars were the first to organize and run a “modern” public transportation service in the city. It took the Diligence (the coach, harnessed to two horses) 14 hours to cover the distance between Jaffa and Jerusalem – with a generous tax paid to the Ottoman governor to have the right to run this service.
Inside the city, including inside the Old City walls, some of the transportation was on donkeys or in small carriages harnessed to donkeys or horses, but the majority of the people simply walked. Jerusalem was small, and the few audacious persons who left the Old City and moved into new neighborhoods outside the walls didn’t require much to move from one place to another.
By 2023 or 2024, about a century and a half later, Jerusalem will have a modern network of light rails to connect its most remote neighborhoods through a modern, quiet, non-polluting system of public transportation accessible to all. The government, which understood the importance of a modern and efficient mass transportation system, has opened its purse. Non-official cost estimates are close to NIS 30 billion – and the project, one of the largest and most costly in our history, will encompass a network of eight lines that will cover the entire city.
The first step, the Red Line, became operational in 2011, after 10 exceedingly challenging years for residents and storeowners. Many lessons were learned – including a spectacular transition from getting the work done by private entrepreneur to total involvement of the government in the project (the Red Line was awarded by a tender to a private company).
Despite consensus that the light rail is the best mass transportation solution for the country’s largest city, the proposed project has caused frustration, opposition, some local struggles and even anger.
The Jerusalem light rail. (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)The Jerusalem light rail. (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
THE PROJECT is on the verge of entering its second phase, with extensions to the existing Red Line and preliminary work (infrastructure) for the Blue and the Green Lines. However, the more the project advances, the more problems seem to arise.
In the case of the Blue Line, most of the controversy concerns the Emek Refaim (1.2 kilometers) segment. The key issue is whether the light rail will a) run along this street, the German Colony’s main artery; b) be re-directed to Harakevet Street, located near Messila Park; or c) travel through a tunnel under Harakevet Street. The options have been submitted to the local planning and construction committee, to the district committee and to a district sub-committee, all of whom favor the Emek Refaim option. However, the German Colony residents’ association, led by Modechai Avraham and Prof. Ariel Hirshfeld, strongly opposes the route and is filing a court appeal.
“There is no reason to destroy Emek Refaim Street, a unique gem in this city when Harakevet St. [“Harakevet” is Hebrew for “the train"], the most natural location for the light rail, is only a few steps away,” says Assaf Obsfeld, who maintains a law office and a branch of Aroma on Emek Refaim.
“We don’t know how long it will take to implement this project, but we all remember the nightmare that took 10 years on Jaffa Road. Lessons have been learned, I assume, but nothing can assure us that we won’t face the same again,” says Obesfeld.
“Moreover, since it is not possible to divide a street this narrow into two tracks, there will have to be a system of lights at each end of the segment to enable trains to advance on the single track one at a time, only in one direction or the other. That is the surest way to invite delays, system failures and even, God forbid, accidents. Why should we do that to ourselves?
“Why not go for the tunnel option under Harakevet Street, which could harm, at the most, merely 150 meters out of the whole Messila Park (some 10 kilometers) and preserve Emek Refaim? Not to mention the many businesses that will have to close down, while there isn’t even one business on Harakevet Street?”
Obesfeld, who represents the association of Emek Refaim businessmen and merchants, adds that the group’s general feeling is that issues of ego prevent Jerusalem Transportation Master Plan staff (the administration in charge of the overall mass transportation plan at the municipality) from reconsidering the decision.
Though the light rail’s Blue Line has been approved, and the fate of its 1.1-kilometer segment on Emek Refaim Street (pictured)  has been decided. (Marc Israel SellemThough the light rail’s Blue Line has been approved, and the fate of its 1.1-kilometer segment on Emek Refaim Street (pictured) has been decided. (Marc Israel Sellem
“What would they say? That they opted for an inferior solution and they have to change their mind and decision? That’s not an easy thing to do, we all know that,” concludes Obsfeld.
Public transportation activist Yossi Saidov weighs in with an opposing view, saying that the light rail will run through Emek Refaim and nothing will change that.
“The experts from the several involved committees have rejected the tunnel idea as impossible to implement,” he says. “We have already wasted too much time. For us, the residents of the southern neighborhoods of Rassco and Katamonim, it’s more than just a public transportation issue. We have several large city renewal projects here that are literally frozen. People want to know before they sign for a renewal project or purchase an apartment that they have transportation, that they can take their children to school, to afternoon programs, go shopping. Until this issue is clarified, they hesitate and hence all the renewal and construction projects are stopped.
“It’s a disaster for the neighborhood and for Jerusalem – some people will simply go elsewhere.”
Problems also surfaced in another location. The Green Line (connecting Gilo and Ramot) needs a depot at its Gilo terminal; for that purpose, a parking lot there has to be closed down. That caused merchants in the nearby commercial center to protest and even threaten to go on strike and block access. A solution has been found meanwhile, but as some Gilo residents say, that was a sign that not everybody is happy about the light rail.
“They don’t really inform us in advance of their plans; we find out too late,” complains one of the merchants, who concedes, after a while, that the information may be available, but “we don’t always go to read all the messages and notices at the community center.”
CITY COUNCILMAN Elad Malka (Hitorerut) is the man behind some of the improvements expected in city public transportation. Spearheading the Transportation Ministry’s decision to cancel Egged’s monopoly and open the road for other private bus companies, it was under his direction that the ministry put out a tender for taxis to provide transportation for lines connecting distant neighborhoods (with a high chance they will operate on Shabbat). He is a strong supporter of the light rail project.
“There is no other way than to develop the public transportation service and the light rail is one of the major ways to reach this goal,” says Malka. “However, we must ensure that none of the next lines will bring upon the city and the residents the unbearable conditions of the Red Line.”
Malka admits that one of the project’s central aims is to convince residents to take public transportation in lieu of their private cars as often as possible, but cautions that this will happen only if the ministry and Master Plan succeed implementing a reliable service. Yet Saidov points out that even among Master Plan staff, most still rely on their private cars, “a very bad example.”
Master Plan general manager Zohar Zuller, for his part, asserts that we will in the near future witness a revolution in terms of transportation and urban facilities.
“We have 23 kilometers of light rail functioning now, and by 2020 to 2022 we should roughly double this, adding to the ‘J-Net’ more than three dozen stations, ultimately connecting neighborhoods such as Gilo, Mount Scopus, Ein Kerem and Malha. This will be a dramatic change in the city.”
Zuller notes that this is particularly important in Jerusalem, where only 23% of resident families have private cars, whereas nationwide (where families tend to have fewer children and greater income), private car ownership exceeds 40%. An additional benefit of having an effective comprehensive public transportation solution is that it will encourage the large number of visitors to the capital from other parts of the country and from overseas to forgo the use of private vehicles here, helping to reduce local traffic congestion.
According to Zuller, the issue of Emek Refaim segment is resolved, the tension with the merchants of Gilo is nearly solved and the coming steps will soon change everything for the better.
“I don’t know what the basis is for such confidence at the Master Plan,” counters Obsfeld. “Consider this – since the end of work on the Red Line (2011), they haven’t been able to add one meter of rail anywhere. There are bigger problems than we might think.” Regarding Emek Refaim, and the upcoming court action, according to Obsfeld, the last word could be in the hands of Mayor Moshe Lion. So far, at least officially, nothing coming from Lion’s office indicates that a change is on its way.
Zuller does not share this concern at all.
“We will launch work on the light rail extension very soon, upon completion of preliminary infrastructure road work in a few different locations – Hentke Street in Kiryat Hayovel for the extension to Hadassah Ein Kerem, the extension to Givati Ram and the last one, for now, to Mount Scopus – all these require a tremendous amount of infrastructure work and once this is done, we will move on to laying the rails.”
Regarding the operators of the next lines, Zuller says, “All the lessons have been learned.” The problems past and present with the Red Line and Citypass management of it will not repeat themselves.
“The infrastructure work is being done by Moriah, the city’s subsidiary company, and supervised by the Transport Ministry. No longer will there be a private company that we cannot supervise.”
The next step, which shouldn’t take long according to Zuller, will be an international tender (again, under governmental supervision) to choose parties for the train cars and the various operating services when the project is ready to run.
“There are about a dozen relevant companies around the world that are interested in this project – but all key decisions will remain in our hands, including even the design of the train cars.”
The upshot? Barring the unexpected, trains along the new routes should begin rolling down the tracks in three to four years.