Hard questions about the light rail

At onset of new era in J'lem’s public transportation, CityPass CEO Yehuda Shoshani talks about what’s next on itinerary for light rail.

Yehuda Shoshani (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yehuda Shoshani
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Less than two months after the system began carrying passengers, the gray cars of the light rail have already become part of the Jerusalem landscape. Although residents and tourists are using the facility for everyday needs, there is still a kind of festive atmosphere surrounding it. Some 1.9 million residents and visitors have already climbed aboard the French-built cars, according to the numbers released on Tuesday by Jerusalem Transportation Master Plan spokesman Shmuel Elgrabli.
“The time has come for the next phase,” says Dror Gannon, deputy director of the Public Transportation Department of the Transportation Ministry at last week’s press conference, “the synchronization of the entire public transit network in the city, of which the light rail is only a part.”
Indeed, according to the new plan, the light rail constitutes about 35 percent of the city’s public transportation system, but it is the newest and by far the most intriguing. In that domain, the man in charge is Yehuda Shoshani, who was recently appointed CEO of the CityPass consortium that built and operates the light rail.
Shoshani, 52, married and a father of two, is a resident of Reut but is quick to say that Jerusalem has a special place in his heart. He served as the IDF representative in several Asian countries and worked in the Far East as a representative of Teva Pharmaceuticals. The office in which he now works is located in the heavily guarded depot of the light rail on the border between French Hill and Isawiya. It was there that he spoke candidly to In Jerusalem.
When asked why he gave up a job at Teva for the light rail, which had such bad press for so many years, Shoshani explains that when he was offered the position, his first thoughts were less practical (in terms of a career move) and more emotional. “I was thrilled at the thought that I would be the director of the first light rail in Jerusalem.”
Shoshani says he feels like a lucky man, as he took on the position at a time when the huge project and the whole new mass transit plan of the capital is ready to become operational. The 10 years of suffering by the residents – and the visitors to the city – are not his fault, he says. He wasn’t there, and he is not responsible for the many mistakes, malfunctions and excessive delays of the light rail schedule.
Shoshani is here for the best part – hopefully – of this project. He is managing the railway that, whether we like it or not, will dramatically change the life in this city.
The first thing he emphasizes is his concern for the safety of the passengers and the quality of service the light rail will deliver on his watch.
“We wanted to launch the phase of testing with passengers on board on September 15,” he says, “but Mayor Nir Barkat insisted that it start before that so children and high school students could have the opportunity to become familiar with the light rail before the school year started. Out of respect for the mayor I agreed, but only if I could be guaranteed that the passengers’ safety would be assured.”
Shoshani says that only after he obtained the assurance from a German company that specializes in light rail safety (and thus did not rely on local experts) that the Jerusalem rail was safe did he allow it to take on pass e n g e r s .
Compared to the gloomy predictions of the Transportation Ministry, which forecasts between 20 and 30 deaths a year with the introduction of the light rail, Shoshani is not willing to accept those figures and says he won’t hesitate to slow down the process to make sure that the prediction remains just that.
On the issue of security, the light rail makes three stops in the Shuafat and Beit Hanina neighborhoods and is thus considered at high risk of terrorist attacks. Shoshani say this is a matter of concern for the state and adds, “There is a complex security network inside and outside the cars, entirely under the government’s control, which is responsible for the security of the passengers.”
It is worth noting that city buses are not guarded, and it’s been about three years since there have been armed guards aboard. On each light rail train, there are at least two armed guards, and a third one patrols the stations along the route.
A few trips on the light rail over the past two weeks revealed several interesting insights. Most of the passengers were either haredi families or Arab residents. On a morning trip from the Jaffa Road stop to the Central Bus Station, two young Arab women sat in a car packed with haredi families. At the Haturim stop, the two women and this journalist got off. One of the women wore a traditional Muslim hijab. The other said she was a student at the Hebrew University.
Both, who got on at French Hill, said they could feel that the haredi passengers were staring at them the whole way, perhaps a little suspiciously.
Amina, the student, said it did n’t bother her, but her friend said that she avoids taking the train alone because the people staring at her seem unfriendly, and it makes her uncomfortable.
When asked about the risk of terror attacks on the light rail, the two didn’t answer, and the friend hurried Amina away.
For now, most of the guards on the train seem to be more occupied with persuading people to let passengers exit the train before boarding, but Shoshani repeats that he knows for sure that the security issue is being handled very seriously.
On my way back toward French Hill, there were many more Arab passengers, most of them elderly women in traditional long dresses and head coverings. Two women, who got off near the Damascus Gate, said they didn’t feel any particular tension during the trip. Asked if they will continue to use the light rail when fares are introduced, they proudly showed me the pre-paid boarding cards they had purchased.
According to the Master Plan figures, more than 400,000 residents have already purchased the Rav- Kav (pre-paid card) to be used on buses and the light rail, a number that has exceeded all expectations. However, embarrassingly, the light rail’s computerized system cannot accept the card.
“These are petty problems that will soon be overcome,” Shoshani says. “Technical difficulties are part of the game.”
IN JERUSALEM there are about 250,000 travelers a day using 180,000 private cars and 600 buses (not counting tour buses and privately run buses based in east Jerusalem), and the light rail is about to change some basic figures.
The date for the inauguration of the light rail service was postponed four times. The initial date of January 2009 was put off to August 2010 due to funding problems and lack of staff. By mid-2010, it turned out that the traffic-light network for the trains was not compatible with the Israeli trafficlight system, and CityPass was given until April 2011 to solve the problem. But then it appeared that CityPass was reluctant to use the Israeli system, and the whole issue went to arbitration.
Meanwhile, a new date was scheduled, August 2011, with the light rail service to begin, without the trains being given priority at traffic lights. As a result, travel time for the full route is still 80 minutes instead of the planned 41 until final synchronization of the lights is completed.
“Under these circumstances,” says Shoshani, “we couldn’t ask for payment, so we decided to run the trains free of charge. I believe that as of November 1 we will begin to charge a fare for the trips.”
As for the complete operational stage, there is still some confusion. Shoshani believes that by the beginning of December everything will be ready.
“We will use all the trains we have, 23 instead of the 11 we use now. And with the completion of the new adapted traffic lights, the light rail will have priority, as planned, and the whole journey, from one terminal to another, will take exactly 41 minutes.”
At the Master Plan offices, however, there is a lot of caution regarding the release of dates. Gannon agrees that by November the light rail will no longer be free, but he is hesitant about pinpointing a date for the completion of the traffic lights.
But that was not the only problem encountered by the light rail. When it started operating on Friday, August 19, the air conditioning in the cars didn’t seem to work properly, and some serious electrical and communications problems appeared, causing trains to suddenly “disappear” and “reappear” on the screens of the control center at the depot in French Hill.
Then the computerized ticketing system collapsed a few days before the inauguration. After arbitration between CityPass and government officials, it was decided that the trains would begin limited operation as scheduled. As a result, only 11 of the 21 trains are functioning, departing every 15 minutes instead of every six minutes.
SHOSHANI SMILES when he hears the long list of problems and acknowledges that the burden on the residents was very taxing.
“Now we should all look ahead. I’m not saying we should disregard the problems and suffering of the past years, but we really are in a different place now. The rate at which we are fixing the computerized system for the adapted traffic lights is unbelievable. We fixed five traffic lights a week. That is unprecedented. We will be ready on time, I can assure you.”
Regarding the issue of air conditioning, Shoshani says there is no problem with the system, which has been specifically adapted to the city’s climate. The problem was a result of the unexpectedly long time the doors remained open due to the large number of passengers on the first days. “Today the air conditioning is fine. There are fewer people at the stations. It is slowly becoming less of an attraction for the residents and more of a normal means of transportation.”
As for the changes the light rail will create for Jerusalem residents, Shoshani sounds as if even the sky’s not the limit.
“Once the transportation system is synchronized, the light rail will finally attain the position it deserves. Buses will serve the neighborhoods and convey people to and from the light rail stations in conditions the residents are not used to. For example, we have a special team that cleans up the cars every day. We want our passengers to feel comfortable, and clean cars are crucial,” he says.
“People have also complained that there are not enough seats. Of course not! After all, a trip by light rail shouldn’t be long, so why sit down unless you’re a senior? It’s just that people are still not used to the upgraded kind of service they are going to get from us. I’m sure things will improve very quickly.”
What’s next?
“My first idea was to start charging a fare in October, thus including Succot, because I wanted to avoid the overcrowded cars we experienced in the summer when families were on vacation. On the other hand, I don’t want people to feel bad about it. A decision will be made soon either way. I like the carnival atmosphere, but I have a lot of concerns, too.”
He says he won’t feel comfortable charging for rides until the system is running more smoothly.
Regarding the price of tickets, Shoshani smiles even more and says it was an independent decision by CityPass to charge the same price as a bus ride – NIS 6.40. “So we offer passengers the opportunity to travel in very comfortable conditions by light rail at the same price as a bus. I think the residents will appreciate that,” he says.
On the subject of additional lines, Shoshani believes that the experience, both bad and good, gained by all parties over the past 10 years will help him avoid most of the problems and pitfalls. The present line will extend from the entrance to Moshav Ora to Hadassah-University Medical Center in Ein Kerem. And here again, there will be new bus lines to synchronize public transportation.
“No one will have to walk too far before he reaches a light rail station or at least a bus that will take him there,” he says.
Another issue of concern is graffiti at the light rail stations. Shoshani admits that the situation is bad and that he and his staff are trying to find solutions. Among other ideas, he is considering setting up special areas with removable panels for the public to execute their graffiti. And who knows? He might even organize exhibitions in cooperation with some of the art schools in the hope that this will divert the youngsters from vandalizing the stations.
“Jerusalem is on the brink of a new era, and I am very proud to be part of it,” he says.