J'lem Municipality tests light rail over 'String Bridge'

Workers call it "the beginning of the end" for capital’s oft-delayed train project, due to start running in April.

311_J'lem light rail (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
311_J'lem light rail
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Soaring more than 120 meters into the air, the white cable Calatrava Bridge at the entrance to Jerusalem is visible from almost everywhere in the city – and has also been one of the most visible points of contention in the 11-year-old light rail project.
The light rail has become notorious for its never-ending delays and frequent, competing lawsuits demanding million of shekels in compensation for CityPass, the consortium building the rail, and the Transportation Ministry.
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At midnight on Monday night, something new was meant to cross the bridge, popularly called the String Bridge: rail cars.
Testing the trains on the bridge will represent “the beginning of the end” of light rail construction, said one worker. Officials are still confident that the light rail will begin operation on April 7, despite serious work that remains to be done.
“There’s no one happier than me today,” said Shmuel Elgrabli, spokesman for the Jerusalem Transportation Master Plan, which designed the light rail system, calling the bridge’s technical tests a “historic moment.”
“It doesn’t happen a lot of times in life that you have a vision and you watch it being built before your eyes,” he said.
“I’ve felt personally all the problems along the way, and all the difficulties, and the pain we’ve gone through, Elgrabli said. “All the planning and construction was like the pregnancy, and now the birth is beginning. And it will be a long labor; it’s not going to happen overnight, but slowly, slowly, we’re seeing it.”
Originally scheduled to be operating in 2007, the project’s deadline was moved repeatedly to the current April 7. The construction has caused massive disruptions to the downtown area, especially to vendors on Jaffa Street, whose merchants’ committee has filed a number of lawsuits demanding compensation for shop owners.
CityPass has also filed lawsuits against the city for delays on permits and other problems, adding up to close to NIS 700 million. The Transportation Ministry has filed lawsuits against CityPass for a similar amount. CityPass has already collected about NIS 200m. from the state.
The bridge itself, designed by world-class architect Santiago Calatrava, was denounced for its high price tag – nearly NIS 250m. Many residents believed that the bridge should have been less flashy and more affordable.
But Elgrabli defended the design choice, noting that the other above-ground design called for eight huge columns that would make the entrance to the city “feel like a jail.”
He also asked for Jerusalem residents to have some patience with the bridge, saying that once the rest of the modern business complex at the center of the city is completed the bridge will be more in context. He said the city is working on plans for buildings higher than 50 stories, reaching higher than the bridge.
“It’s totally legitimate for people not to like to bridge,” said Elgrabli. “There were a lot of people who didn’t like the Eiffel Tower at first as well. For a hundred years they said ‘You have to destroy it, how could you build something so ugly in such a beautiful city that’s just for show.’ Now try to think of Paris without the Eiffel Tower.”
The trains for Monday nights tests were brought from the depot at the Ma’aleh Adumim junction using electricity, as the wires are already electrified and ready for use along much of the track. Previously, special trucks have been used to move the trains along the track. The tests involved 10-12 trips across the bridge, at first with one train at a time and afterwards with two trains at a time.
“I really feel like we’re getting close to the end,” said Jamal, a security worker guarding the trains near the Central Bus Station on Monday.
“When we started, we didn’t think it would ever end... We feel like we’re really going to make an important step tonight.”
Passersby ogled the sleek new train as it waited next to the bridge on Jaffa Street, with plastic bubble wrap still on many of the seats.
“In the morning I saw this train, and there was happiness in my heart,” said Yoram Rahamim, a Jerusalem resident for more than 50 years.
Rahamim echoed the sentiments of many Jerusalem residents, who are praying for the project’s completion so that normal life can resume downtown.
Traffic at the city’s western entrance was diverted from under the bridge at 11:30 p.m., though the measure was more for insurance than safety, said one worker.
“We’re 100 percent sure it will pass over in peace,” he said.