The Jerusalem track

Jerusalem-Tel Aviv in half an hour by 2017 – this is the jewel in the crown of Israel Railways expansion activities.

Jerusalem Tel Aviv Rail 521 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/flash 90)
Jerusalem Tel Aviv Rail 521
(photo credit: Kobi Gideon/flash 90)
In the 21st century, a first-world country without a high-speed rail link between its two major population, cultural and industrial hubs seems odd.
But that is indeed the case in Israel. Want to catch a fast train from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv? You’ll have to wait five years – but the project is well under way.
Construction work is on schedule and Israel Railway officials are increasingly confident that the seven billion shekel project – dubbed “Plan A1” and representing perhaps the largest single infrastructural effort in the country at the moment – will be crowned with success after many years of frustrating delays. When the fast trains do start speeding down the tracks, the officials promise, the impact will be positive and very noticeable.
Today, an express bus on the 63-kilometer trip from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (and vice versa) can take anywhere from 45 minutes to well over an hour, depending on traffic. The only rail option, albeit a scenic one suitable for those wishing to see more of the country, takes an hour and a half. It doesn’t even take travelers into the heart of the capital, depositing them near the Malha shopping mall in the southwest. The new line will terminate in the center of Jerusalem, and bring the journey time down to 30 minutes, a boon for those whose work takes them from one city to another.
“There is a lot of demand for travel between the cities on a daily basis,” Yaron Ravid, deputy CEO of Israel Railways, tells The Jerusalem Report. “We won’t have any difficulty getting passengers. We’ll have four trains leaving in each direction every hour most hours of the day.”
The trains will reach a top speed of 160 kilometers per hour, easily making them the fastest locomotives ever to barrel down the tracks in Israel and reducing the time of the journey by two-thirds. “If you want to be precise about it, the travel time will actually be cut down to 28 and a half minutes,” says Ravid.
Ravid calls the construction a “megaproject”.
The double-track line, which will eventually connect Ben-Gurion International Airport and Jerusalem (the airport is already connected to Tel Aviv by fast trains), involves more than 56 kilometers of track laid over difficult terrain. Anyone who has ever visited Jerusalem knows the landscape surrounding the city comprises sharply sloping hills and deep ravines. Overcoming these challenges requires the construction of five new tunnels – including one stretching 11 kilometers, the longest in Israel – and 10 new bridges, all at considerable cost.
The project also includes constructing a new main railway station in Jerusalem, on which construction work has already begun. The new station will be located 80 meters underground, between Jerusalem’s International Convention Center and the central bus station. Travelers arriving at the station will easily be able to continue their journeys either by bus or the light rail. In theory, a tourist coming to Israel intent on getting to the Old City of Jerusalem will be able to get off the plane at Ben-Gurion and after going through passport control and collecting her baggage be in the Old City in less than 40 minutes.
The entire area of the new railway station is set for a major facelift. In mid-August, the Interior Ministry gave an initial stamp of approval to construction plans for the entrance to the city, including 12 new highrise buildings. The construction of the planned 24- and 33-story buildings, which will house government offices, private businesses and residential apartments as well as a 2,000- room hotel and a multiplex cinema, will completely transform the skyline of the city.
The municipality hopes that the one million square meters of office and commercial space to be built will provide approximately 40,000 new jobs.
The new railway station will be a central element in what will become the city’s central transportation hub. “The new station will contain thousands of square feet,” Ravid relates. “It will be a very important station and we at Israel Railways are investing a lot in it.”
The new facility will be a far cry from the original Jerusalem railway station, constructed in 1892 by the Ottoman Turk administration after it had laid down tracks connecting Jaffa to Jerusalem – a major modernization effort in what was at the time considered a minor and backwater province of the Turkish Empire.
The administration of the British Mandate in Palestine invested relatively heavily in railway maintenance because the country’s rail tracks were a significant element of a Mideast-wide rail system connecting Egypt to Lebanon, Syria and Transjordan – regarded by the British as strategically important for control of the area.
The creation of the State of Israel, however, brought an end to rail connections between the country and neighboring lands. Rail construction and maintenance in general received very low priority in transportation budgets for many years. Buses became the main mode of public transportation, reportedly because security officials believed a bus system to be more resilient to terrorist attacks than a track-based system vulnerable to bombs laid on the lines.
By 1998, the old railway line between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem was deemed to be in such a state of disrepair that its service was suspended. Repair work was conducted on the line over the next seven years until the line was reopened, but the government opted not to invest in a costly upgrade, deciding instead that the time had come to construct an entirely new, high-speed line.
The first step was connecting Tel Aviv with the airport, a three-year effort completed in 2004. The rail link between the airport and Tel Aviv is regarded as a resounding success.
Due to the large demand by tourists seeking to get to Tel Aviv as quickly and easily as possible, even when their flights landed in the middle of the night, night trains were added to the line by Israel Railways, a first for Israel.
The next stage of the project, connecting the airport with nearby Kfar Daniel, was delayed by a common occurrence in Israeli construction – digging up archaeological relics. Ancient graves were discovered during construction work not far from Route 1, the main highway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. “That did slow down the work,” admits Ravid, “but we worked with religious authorities as smoothly as possible to have the graves moved properly and got back to work.”
The phase of the project that is currently being worked on, extending the rail line from Kfar Daniel all the way to Jerusalem, is the most challenging in terms of overcoming natural obstacles. It has also not been without controversy.
Financially, cost overruns have plagued the project from the start. The initial cost estimates of less than three billion shekels have long been rendered moot. The current bill is at about seven billion shekels, but with more than four years to go until completion, that number could realistically still be considered a moving target.
Meanwhile, the tremendous amount of earth displaced during the process of tunnel digging has drawn criticism from environmentalists. So where do you put all that dirt without causing environmental damage? Ravid says that Israel Railways and its contractors are taking the matter seriously.
“When you dig tunnels at the rate we are digging, dealing with large amounts of earth and dust is always an issue,” he says. “It comes to millions of cubic feet. We remove a great deal of dug-up earth to specified locations, to minimize the environmental impact. We are aware of the issues.”
The Middle East conflict also entangled the project in some controversy. The railway line passes through the West Bank at two points, one near Latrun and another north of Mevasseret Zion. That did not escape the notice of Palestinian advocacy groups, who pressurized European companies involved in the project to withdraw. Deutsche Bahn, the German national railway operator, did indeed end its involvement as a result.
By far the biggest controversy, however, involved a long battle between Israel Railways and environmental organizations, led by the Society for the Protection of Nature (SPNI). The group expressed concerns over potential damage that tunnels being dug for the new rail line could cause to the Yitla stream, which runs alongside a national park and is even mentioned in the Bible. The SPNI proposed replacing a bridge and two tunnels with one much longer and deeper tunnel that it claimed would minimize environmental damage to the stream and the Yitla Valley.
The Ministry of Finance and Israel Railways opposed the proposed longer tunnel. The Ministry of the Environment, the SPNI and several other green groups petitioned the Jerusalem area planning commission, but the commission ruled in favor of the original Israel Railways plan.
An appeal to the National Infrastructures Planning Commission also ended in failure in August 2009, when the commission ruled in favor of the bridge over the Yitla stream, as proposed by Israel Railways, subject to modifications to reduce its overall footprint.
The SPNI is still sorely disappointed over the Yitla Valley row. “The environmental damage that we predicted is now taking place and it is irreversible,” says Dov Greenblatt, SPNI spokesman. “The valley is home to many plants and animals. Israel Railways’ claim that constructing one long tunnel would be far more expensive than what their plans called for was always false, and it is unfortunate that the environment is suffering as a result.”
Ravid, for his part, strives to sound very environmentally aware. “At Yitla, our construction works preserve the river in its natural course and condition. We were careful not to harm the environment,” he says. “Let me add that I am happy to say that the management of Israel Railways has that the management of Israel Railways has changed its approach to these issues relative to that of management in previous years. We take environmental issues very seriously. There was recently a bit of a dispute regarding the level of noise that railway construction would cause to residents of Mevasseret Zion, which is located not far from the new tracks. We have made every effort to ensure that the noise level is reasonable. We do care. There really are no conflicts between us and environmentalists.”
The new Tel Av iv-Jerusalem rail line will be geared toward efficiency – moving people as quickly as possible.
The old track is certainly inefficient – getting to Jerusalem by bus from Tel Aviv takes less time – but the natural scenery that one sees through the train windows as the rail carriages wind their way up the mountains can be charming. “We haven’t yet decided what to do with the old Tel Aviv-Jerusalem track,” says Ravid. “It has a lot of value as a tourist and scenic attraction, and we are considering using it for those purposes.”
Israel Railways still owns the old Jerusalem railway station and its environs, near the Khan theater. In conjunction with the Jerusalem Development Corporation, Israel Railways has leased most of the old warehouse buildings there for use as restaurants and entertainment halls, creating a new public space in the center of Jerusalem. This arrangement has so far been satisfactory to all involved and Ravid says that there is every intention to continue developing the area.
Besides the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem line, Israel Railways is working on several other projects. Kfar Saba and Raanana, just north of Tel Aviv, are slated to be connected to the main coastal rail line, with two new stations to be constructed in Raanana. Reducing travel time between Tel Aviv and Beersheba, the southern capital, to 55 minutes from the current hour and a quarter is in the works, along with a direct rail connection between Beersheba and Ashkelon, on the Mediterranean coast. There are operative plans for the construction of a train station in Zichron Yaakov, connecting that town to Haifa and Tel Aviv along the coastal rail line, along with rail links enabling passengers to get from Tel Aviv to the southern city of Kiryat Gat in about half an hour.
In fact, if all of the construction projects in Israel Railways’ portfolio of plans are completed as scheduled, by the first half of the next decade nearly every significant population center in the country will be reachable from Tel Aviv by rail within 30 minutes to an hour.
But the question that is always asked when discussing the subject of rail travel in Israel is when Eilat – Israel’s southernmost city that sits on the Red Sea – will finally be connected by train to the rest of the country.
The project would be a “mega-mega” effort that could require the construction of dozens of bridges over a route stretching some 350 kilometers.
“Planning for an Eilat rail line is already taking place,” says Ravid. “That is a project of national importance and we have been conducting a lot of preparatory work. Whether or not the project is undertaken depends now on further government decisions and, of course, on budgeting allocations from the government.”