On the right track

The Jerusalem-Tel Aviv fast train, Israel’s most ambitious public works project, will reinvent the capital and crown a national transport revolution

The train's bridge at the fast lane in Ayalon Valley (photo credit: DMY/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
The train's bridge at the fast lane in Ayalon Valley
The day in autumn 1892 when a locomotive’s honk, chug and pillar of smoke arrived across the ravine from Mt. Zion – was epiphanic, even by the standards of the Holy City.
Festively draped in Turkish Ottoman flags, the coal-fueled train’s four-hour climb from Jaffa seemed to the locals almost supersonic.
“The engine’s roar is the roar of enlightenment’s victory over ignorance,” waxed poetic Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the reviver of the Hebrew language, whose embrace of modernity made him the enemy of Jerusalem’s rabbis.
Yet, the mountainous train line, which in the Ottoman period was a symbol of progress and during the British Mandate period was an imperial bloodline, became in its Israeli period an epitome of backwardness and a butt of jokes – even after the transition to diesel helped cut the ride’s length by more than half.
Now, as the centerpiece of a rapidly unfolding transportation revolution with far-reaching economic, social and cultural repercussions, the railway to Jerusalem is just two years away from restoring its original status as a hallmark of modernity, vision and speed.
The most expensive and ambitious public works project ever launched in the Jewish state will lead fast trains into the country’s deepest tunnel after crossing its longest bridge, longest tunnel and tallest bridge.
Drivers climbing the highway to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem’s Ramot neighborhood these days pass between 14 pairs of cement pillars that shoulder a massive bridge under construction. Emerging from the elevator that lifts the builders of this imposing structure above the intercity traffic, one gets a view of how the 90- meter bridge – Israel’s tallest – will unveil Jerusalem to passengers less than 30 minutes after they boarded in Tel Aviv.
Looking through the windows to their left upon emerging from an 11.5-kilometer tunnel – Israel’s longest – a panorama of northwestern Jerusalem will unfurl, from the Nebi Samuel minaret through the Belz Synagogue to Calatrava’s Bridge of Strings, before the train is again engulfed by a tunnel – the journey’s fifth and last – as it crawls under the Sakharov Gardens into the basement of the glass-and-steel cube that will be Jerusalem’s version of New York’s Grand Central Station. The capital’s original train station in the south of the city, where that first Ottoman locomotive arrived, was fully above ground, as the restaurants, cafés and cyclists’ park it now hosts collectively attest.
The new station, whose main structure and tunnels are already intact between the Central Bus Station and the International Convention Center, is 80 meters underground, one meter deeper than Washington Park Station in Portland, Oregon, the deepest train station in North America (Kiev’s Arsenalna Metro station is the deepest in the world at 105.5 meters).
In Jerusalem, after descending through multiple escalators, passengers will stand briefly on a platform from which they and another 1,000 passengers will board a westbound train while another 1,000 people emerge from the eastbound train across the platform that has just arrived from Tel Aviv following a 90-second stop at Ben-Gurion Airport.
When the first train leaves from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv in winter 2018, Israel’s political and financial centers will finally be properly rail-linked, like Washington and New York, Moscow and St. Petersburg, and Beijing and Shanghai.
LAUNCHED BY the Sharon government in 2003, the project is a massive undertaking – financially, technically, and administratively.
At 6.8 billion shekels, its price tag is higher than the entire annual welfare budget. Yet, this budgetary challenge is dwarfed by the project’s technical, administrative and regulatory challenges.
Though simpler than the engineering, budgeting stalled the project by some two years after Israel Railways demanded that the originally 2 billion shekel budget be trebled, citing underestimated costs. The Treasury, therefore, decided, during Ehud Olmert’s premiership, to suspend the project until the budget was reviewed.
When it was finally re-budgeted, the project was stalled again, this time for environmental reasons as a coalition of green organizations argued that one of the railway’s planned bridges would severely damage nature in the Yitla gorge, the biblical site of a town by that name belonging to the tribe of Dan.
The greens demanded that the bridge be replaced with a deep tunnel. Yet, such a solution, besides being financially exorbitant, would have undermined – figuratively and literally – the scheme’s entire engineering vision.
In terms of length, at 57 kilometers, the line is Lilliputian compared to New York-Washington (362) and Beijing-Shanghai (1,318). This is why this line will make do with a speed of 180 kilometers per hour as opposed to 250 kph for other fast trains.
Similarly, the new Jerusalem station at 815 meters is situated at a fraction of the altitude of assorted railways ranging from Switzerland to China that are higher than 4,000 meters. The local challenge was the steepness of the incline starting at sea level and the need for speed rather than scenic vistas.
“We don’t know of a single project elsewhere with the complexities of this one,” High Speed Link Project Director Dror Sofro tells The Jerusalem Report. “This can’t be compared with anything,” he says, not even the relatively high Madrid-Valladolid fast train.
Moreover, unlike other fast train routes, the flatness of which allowed construction to proceed simultaneously from their opposite ends, in Jerusalem’s case, work could only proceed from one end, the western, because only there, on the Judean foothills, is the land flat and spacious enough for heavy equipment to be properly parked and deployed.
Similarly, unlike ordinary fast trains, which generally avoid long bridges, the one at the entrance to Jerusalem is so long and tall that when on the bridge trains will have to brace for potentially destabilizing winds by limiting their speed to 160 kph, explains safety officer Tomer Miretzki from under his hard hat, as the wind buffets him while atop the bridge.
The Ottomans solved the incline problem by extending the route, which they let meander along the pristine slopes overlooking the Nahal Sorek stream, which climbs from Beit Shemesh to the biblical Refaim Valley through which the Philistines invaded the Judean Mountains en route to their final rout by David.
The new train route avoids the mountainous meandering creeks, running instead along a mostly straight continuum of 16 tunnels and bridges. At the same time, the route’s planners tempered its incline at both its ends.
In the east, the Jerusalem station was lowered for this reason by 80 meters. In the west, as the Judean foothills approach, the train will climb a 1.2 km-long bridge – Israel’s longest – that, rather than cross a ravine or avoid a town, will lift it at a two-degree angle above the Ayalon Valley’s cotton fields. Consequently, the trains will begin climbing before reaching the mountains, and thus tunnel into them from well above their foothills.
The environmentally contentious Yitla gorge emerges where the tunnel that is past this bridge ends.
“HAD THE greens demand been heeded, the station in Jerusalem would have had to be 200 meters deep,” says Israel Railways official Batsheva Landau-Segev, standing by the pair of 150-meter bridges that this seldom-visited ravine has come to shoulder.
After having stalled the project through court injunctions, the greens were overruled by a High Court decision that allowed bridging above the gorge, while ruling that the parallel bridges will rest on a single pillar each, and that those be planted not in the riverbed below them, but in the slope just above.
The environmentalist cause may have been compromised, but it was still well served by the struggle since special efforts were made to minimize the project’s imprint on the landscape. Most unusually, the earth, with its vegetation, that was excavated while the bridges were planted is being preserved to be restored to its original locations.
Meanwhile, the project’s massive digging demanded technologies previously unseen in the Holy Land, most notably the massive tunnel-boring machines (TBMs), which travel through mountainsides while twirling huge blades, clearing back the earth they dig and, at the same time, walling the tunnel they create with cement.
Problems appeared periodically, including the recent cracking of a floor in one of the project’s 68 escape tunnels. Israel Railways spokesman Shahar Weisman says this mishap is marginal and will not delay the project’s completion.
“The tunnels have been dug, the bridges are nearly complete. By the end of next year we will have laid the rails, and then we will electrify the railway all the way to Herzliya – the first such scheme ever done in Israel,” he tells The Report, before vowing that in March 2018 a fast train will race between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Since this task, as well as the project’s deep digging and tall bridging, had never been done in Israel, foreign contractors were hired from Germany, France, Italy and Russia in order to build separate segments of the route, while partnering with Israeli firms.
As a result, local companies have earned priceless engineering knowledge from their foreign partners, much the way Japan hired foreigners to build its first trains in the 19th century and, after seeing how the first several lines were built, it constructed the next one on its own.
This deployment of foreign experience allowed the project to produce a largely invisible train route, something never previously done in Israel, let alone in Jerusalem, whose last major underground engineering project was King Hezekiah’s water tunnel, 27 centuries ago.
In fact, once drivers coming from Tel Aviv reach the Shaar Hagai Pass, the train running to their north will vanish and won’t reappear until they reach Jerusalem’s gateway where the train will swoosh above them, having run under the kibbutzim of Ma’ale Hahamisha and Kiryat Anavim and the sprawling suburb of Mevasseret Zion.
The experience of traveling to Jerusalem will thus be revolutionized, as will the city’s place in Israeli life.
While technologically inspiring, the new railway will be historically demystifying, as the ride between Israel’s commercial heartbeat and spiritual fountainhead becomes a brief and relatively colorless voyage, much the same as the ride between, say, Amsterdam and Hague.
Passengers will miss some familiar sites on the road to Jerusalem, which in its current path, is not only scenic but also patriotic.
For nearly 70 years, eastbound commuters entering Shaar Hagai have been greeted by the monumentalized wreckages of the armored vehicles in which IDF fighters broke the 1948 siege of Jerusalem, but the fast train’s route will avoid them.
The old, 80-minute train route beginning from outside the Malha Mall in the city’s south, will continue to operate, serving tourists, school trips and the town of Beit Shemesh, Israel Railways officials promise.
It will, therefore, serve as a nostalgic reminder of the past when the underused train route to Jerusalem was so slow and quaint that passengers would joke that the driver was about to ask them to get off the train and push it uphill.
The new route, by contrast, is expected to take some 70,000 passengers daily between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, a volume which, by then, should be roughly one quarter of Israel’s entire rail-borne passenger load.
The short train ride will open Tel Aviv’s diverse job market to thousands of Jerusalemites who until now have rejected the idea of a daily commute from the city, whose biggest employers are the government and the Hebrew University.
Jerusalem will, thus, offset the economic marginality to which it has been condemned since antiquity, when Herod connected the coastal plain to Rome through the sophisticated port he built in Caesarea. The ability to live in Jerusalem and work in the coastal plain will raise Jerusalemites’ relatively low average income and, therefore, change the city’s demographics.
At the same time, many of the government offices in central Tel Aviv will gradually migrate to Jerusalem. Bracing for this transformation, Jerusalem’s municipality is planning a new commercial complex comprising office towers, hotels, theaters and shopping centers that will cluster around the new train station.
The location of the planned complex back-to-back with Jerusalem’s light railway, along with the latter’s planned extensions to the Hebrew University’s campuses on Givat Ram and on Mount Scopus is expected to attract young adults. The result may be a less conservative and more secular Jerusalem.
The railway’s reinvention of Jerusalem is part of a broader revolution that is well underway.
What began in the 1990s with the doubling of the tracks between Tel Aviv and Haifa and the emergence of a commuter culture, whereby drivers park in places like Binyamina and Herzliya and take the train to downtown Tel Aviv, has since spread north and south.
In the north, the 60 km line that until 1948 linked Haifa and Beit She’an across the Jezreel Valley has been restored and will begin operating next January. Further north, a line connecting Acre and Karmiel is also approaching completion, and is scheduled to open in spring next year. The line is planned later to extend further northeast to Kiryat Shmona.
In the south, the Tel Aviv-Beersheba line was upgraded and double-tracked three years ago, cutting the 87-km travel time from 75 to 55 minutes. A 70-km line from Ashkelon to Beersheba now runs 25 daily trains in each direction, making the journey in 50 minutes. A southern extension, opened in 2005, climbs a 400-meter elevation to Dimona, 35 km southeast of Beersheba.
The southern lines and the doubling of the coastal tracks have already more than trebled the overall number of train passengers since 2001 from an annual 15 million to nearly 50 million. The northern extensions and the Jerusalem fast train will further multiply this figure.
The railway revolution is planned ultimately to be capped by a line to Eilat – a 380-km route that will take two hours – mostly by upgrading the existing passenger route to Dimona and freight route to Nahal Zin. The remaining leg is to be built from scratch along the Arava rift.
THE EILAT project, whose costs are expected to exceed the initially calculated 7 billion shekels, has been planned and approved in principle, but has yet to be budgeted and launched. Even so, down south, Israel’s unfolding railway revolution is already palpable.
Ofakim, halfway between the Gaza Strip and Beersheba, and for decades one of Israel’s most drab and off-the-beaten-path towns, inaugurated in early January its train station, a modest but handsome structure of glass, steel and red brick.
Two mornings later, the cars of 100 commuters occupied the station’s well-planned parking lot, alongside a bus station and special parking slots for bicycles and motorbikes.
A 20-minute and 13-shekel train ride north of there, in Sderot, 300 cars were parked outside a vast and well-stocked Hyper Cohen supermarket, lynch-pinning a newly built strip mall with elegant shops for clothing, bedding, baby goods, kitchenware and liquors, as well as a restaurant, a café and trendy sushi bar.
It is hardly a year since the first locomotive arrived here, and as a midday train arrives punctually from Ashkelon some 100 people pour out as naturally as they would at any railroad station, only here the tunnel under the platforms leads to the station’s aesthetically arranged concrete triangles, designed to resist rockets from nearby Gaza.
“The strip mall is just the beginning,” says spokesman Weisman. He predicts that the stations will become engines of development, including a planned dormitory adjacent to the Ofakim station, where lowrent apartments will be offered to students a mere 17-minute train ride from Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba.
Midway between Sderot and Ofakim, the Netivot station’s façade is dominated by what might be the county’s largest clock, some three meters in diameter. Inside the impeccable station of marble and limestone, in his orderly office, station manager Shai Sitbon describes his day to The Report.
“I get here every dawn at 4:30 a.m.,” he says. “I check that the station is properly maintained and clean and that all is working and in place: cleaners, cashiers, security men, safety workers, stewardesses, cafeteria and machines.” Just outside his office stand eight silvery automatic ticket gates.
A native of Nahariya, on the Lebanese border, the 30-year-old Sitbon originally joined Israel Railways as a security guard after completing his IDF service in the Givati infantry brigade. After working up north as an inspector, he married a woman from Netivot where the couple moved while he worked as a shift manager in Lod, outside Ben-Gurion Airport.
“It was one big complication,” he says, recalling the “prehistoric” days before Netivot was linked to the railway 11 months ago. “I would go to Lod by cab, then return by train to Beersheba, where I would take a ride after which I would walk home 15 minutes by foot.”
Now, every morning, he sees hundreds of locals board the trains to Beersheba and Tel Aviv. In the first months, he recalls, the old-timers came every day just to see that their town’s link to the railway system was not a mirage.
Pointing through his station’s façade, Sitbon indicates a concrete forest of skeletal apartment buildings under construction where workers are laboring under five cranes. “This is the impact of the trains,” he says of the budding neighborhood where he and his wife, now parents of three, bought a three-bedroom apartment in a seven-story building.
“Everyone wants to live next to the train station,” relates Sitbon, an embroidered Israel Railways symbol decorating his uniform’s blue sweater and red tie. He thinks he knows all the faces of the hundreds of commuters who board the train every morning.
And it’s mutual. “Everyone knows you in this town if you work in the railway,” he says. “I am a celebrity here.”