J'lem-Tel Aviv express train faces budget derailment

Prime Minister's Office director-general cites other priorities.

train 1 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
train 1 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A new ultra-modern express train service between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that would cut travel time between the two cities to less than half an hour and which was slated to begin running within five years is likely to get temporarily derailed, as the director-general of the Prime Minister's Office said that other issues took precedence in the national budget, officials said Thursday. The $750 million express route, which is under construction, was expected to begin running in 2013, after already being pushed back three years due to construction delays. But the plan now faces an indefinite delay. Prime Minister's Office director-general Ra'anan Dinur, said the rail line budget was not at the top of the government's list of priorities, which includes social affairs, education, and benefits for the periphery of the country. "As a Jerusalemite, I will tell you that we will have to wait years - even many years - to get to Tel Aviv in 28 minutes," Dinur told the Hebrew economic daily Calcalist, noting that train lines in northern Israel, such as those between Acre and Karmiel, took precedence over Jerusalem since they were on the periphery. The budget for the rail line is subject to the approval of the Prime Minister's Office. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has been a supporter of the express rail project dating back to his tenure as Jerusalem mayor, was noncommittal on the project this week. "The prime minister will make up his mind on the issue after he is presented with Israel Railways' five-year plan as part of a future meeting that will be headed by the transportation and finance ministers," a statement from Olmert's office said. Transportation Ministry spokesman Avner Ovadiah said Wednesday that discussions were still under way on the issue, and that no final decision had been taken on the project. Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, who has been a major advocate of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv express service, said he would demand that the work on the rail line continue as scheduled. "We will insist on it, because this line strengthens Jerusalem and will allow people to live in the capital," Mofaz said. When it is completed, the express train, which will make stops in Modi'in and at Ben-Gurion Airport, will be the fastest method of transportation between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The route will include a 2,400-meter tunnel and a 1,200-m. bridge at the entrance to the city, the Jerusalem Municipality said. Train service between the two cities was renewed in 2005, after nearly seven years when no trains ran to or from the capital at all due to poor track conditions and repeated derailments. The current train ride between the two cities is nearly two hours long, with passengers required to change trains in Beit Shemesh. In contrast, bus service between the two cities during non-rush hour periods is about an hour. As mayor, Olmert had opposed a decision by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon to upgrade the existing line between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv instead of just adopting the municipality's plan for an express line via Beit Shemesh, due to concerns that the Finance Ministry would not fund the new line once the renovated line was functioning. At the time, the prominent American engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, which planned the original New York subway, had made a conditional offer to fund the new rail project. The Prime Minister's Office declined comment Thursday on why the government would not outsource the project if budgeting was a problem. Meanwhile, the first line in Jerusalem's light-rail system, meant to ease traffic congestion and reduce smog, is slated to begin running by the end of 2010.