The Inside Track

CityPass CEO prefers to focus on the positive but residents are not following suit.

Passengers on the light rail 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Passengers on the light rail 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Thursday, 6:40 a.m., at the Safra Square light rail stop, four middle-aged men and a woman step down, hurry to the ticket machines and buy tickets for the train. Only one of them manages to board again before the train leaves the station; the woman and the three men remain on the sidewalk, waiting with some frustration, for the next one.
From the conversation between two of them, it turns out that they boarded the train without tickets at Shuafat and tried to buy tickets before an inspector could fine them. The next train arrives exactly on time – the trams are still half-empty at this early hour, and at the automatic door of the first car, an inspector stands, scrutinizing the passengers to find one without a ticket.
The woman exchanges a thin smile with the two men, and they take their seats after validating the tickets they just bought.
Less than six months after entering his post as general manager of CityPass, the company that runs the light rail, Yehuda Shoshani smiles and declares that despite the bad press his company has received among the public, the light rail is a success story. He acknowledges the highly publicized cases of passengers receiving unjust fines, the delays in the trains’ arrival, the lack of information at the stops and even the anger of the residents who still remember the roadworks – not to mention the recent incident in which an Arab youth stabbed a female soldier in one of the train cars – but he prefers to focus on the achievements made during his time, and there are quite a few.
Here are some figures. From 14 trains running on the light rail route since it started last August, CityPass has reached its full capacity of 21 trains. The wait between trains has gone down from 12 (and sometimes 15) minutes in August to six minutes, with a peak of five minutes at rush hours.
The traffic lights – one of the major conflict issues between CityPass and the Transportation Ministry – are now mostly equipped to give the light rail priority over cars and buses. Seventy such “smart traffic lights” are deployed along the train route, 60 of them already adapted to prioritize the light rail. (In August, when the light rail began to move, there were only 25 such traffic lights.) Three locations are still not connected to this system – the French Hill and Kiryat Moshe neighborhoods, and Hanevi’im Street.
“In these three areas, we will receive partial priority, which will eventually be determined according to the general traffic there, and it is a ministry decision, not ours,” explains Shoshani.
Does that mean the train will not meet its commitment to keep the running time for the entire route short? Shoshani hesitates, but says that it will not exceed 43 minutes (42 minutes was the time scheduled this past December).
And last but not least, 70,000 passengers use the light rail on a daily basis (compared to 40,000 in August). That number is expected to go up to 100,000 by next August with the completion of the city’s mass transportation plan, at which point the light rail will carry 25 percent of public transportation users in the city.
But so far, the light rail has succeeded mostly in raising anger and frustration, especially in regard to inspectors’ behavior and fines for passengers.
YOSSI SAIDOV, president of the South Jerusalem (Katamonim and Rassco) neighborhood council and the founder of 15 Minutes – an organization that monitors the quality of public transportation in the city – says that “CityPass deserves its bad reputation.”
He says he receives hundreds of letters and e-mails from residents who have faced embarrassing situations in which they were brutally questioned and fined by inspectors, who accused them of riding without paying.
“CityPass was not even capable of fixing the problem of broken validation machines, and too many times seniors have been forced to disembark, in front of passengers, for no reason, since they paid for their tickets but couldn’t validate them.”
Shoshani, however, says that CityPass is not to blame; rather, it was Egged, the bus company, that supplied tickets with the wrong code for the train validation machines.
“We spent lots of money and time training our staff on every aspect; at Egged they apparently did a little less, and bus drivers sold tickets that were not the same code [as the train] – so passengers who moved from a bus to the light rail thought they had a valid ticket, which in fact could not be used. There was nothing the inspectors could do other than issue fines.”
To the remark that one can impose even a lawful fine without publicly humiliating travelers, Shoshani, seeming embarrassed, responds, “I did order six supervisors whose attitudes I couldn’t accept fired.”
However, his reasons for doing so were apparently somewhat different from what bothers Saidov and the unlucky passengers who have been fined – like an inspector who shows up unshaven, who smokes while on duty, who is late or uses rude language, though not particularly with passengers.
“The fact is that too many incidents occurred,” argues Saidov. “Even the ticket machines did not refund change.”
Earlier this week, at four stops along Jaffa Road, that was not the case, and the machines gave change for coins and bills. But at the Safra Square stop, passengers who have been using the light rail since the beginning confirmed that until recently that was the situation.
On one issue, Shoshani refuses to take any responsibility – the need to transfer from buses to the train and vice versa, which many have complained causes undue inconvenience.
“This is part of the new concept framed by the government, through the Transportation Ministry, to bring people to make massive use of public transportation – I only give the practical solution on the ground,” he says.
Saidov insists this issue is “a real nightmare.”
“Think about old people, carrying heavy bags from the shuk, who first board a tram, then have to move to a bus – is that what we call a pleasant transportation experience?” he asks.
Still, Shoshani has some good news: Following the outcry over the fines, he decided to cancel those given because of the wrong codes – about a quarter of all the fines handed out since last December.
“It represents a lot of money,” he points out. “A few hundred thousand shekels, and CityPass is taking it upon itself, because we want the public to feel comfortable.”
From now on, he says, if an inspector finds a passenger with the wrong code on a ticket, he will give him a citation, but no fine. “I hope that will convince people that we are really doing our best.”
In addition, he says, the fired inspectors have been replaced, at his request, by older employees, on the assumption that an inspector who is him- or herself a parent will be less likely to mistreat an elderly person or a mother with a baby carriage.
Nevertheless, many residents, whether they use the light rail or not, complain that the train does not meet their expectations – that the need to validate tickets while boarding the tram is complicated and leads too often to unjust fines, and that the light rail does not really justify using public transportation instead of cars.
In response to these reports, the CityPass manager is willing to say only that time will prove that the light rail is the best thing for Jerusalem’s residents. As for additional planned lines, the decision is in the hands of the Transportation Ministry, and Shoshani concludes that when it makes that decision, the ministry will find him ready.
For the moment, the only plans are to add segments to the existing line, one to reach Neveh Ya’acov in the north and another one to reach Hadassah University Medical Center in Ein Kerem – expected to be ready within two years. •