Light at the end of the light rail tunnel?

On the tram’s maiden voyage, officials promise new high-speed buses, extensions to the first rail line and overall better transportation service.

Light Rail Tel Aviv (photo credit: Courtesy)
Light Rail Tel Aviv
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Plagued by four years of technical delays and cost overruns, Jerusalem’s light rail finally seems to be on track to open in seven months. But judging by the tram’s VIPs and reporters-only maiden voyage Monday, the final stretch promises still more bumps in the track ahead.
Ridership remains the main potential problem for the sleek, bullet-shaped cars that seat 64 riders and can accommodate another 140 standing passengers. The air-conditioned, French-built cars will receive priority at traffic lights, enabling them to cruise along at speeds of up to 80 kph along the 13.9 km.-long Red Line.
Yair Naveh, the CEO of the CityPass consortium that is building the tramway, said, “It’s intended to serve all Jerusalemites: secular, haredim, Arabs – all of them.”
Though three stations serve the Arab neighborhood of Shuafat, linking it to the Old City’s Damascus Gate area, Arab riders may prefer to continue using the mini-buses that ply the routes to Jerusalem’s northern Arab suburbs. A ride Monday on one of the comfortable, air-conditioned buses cost NIS 4.50. The Transportation Ministry has yet to finalize the cost of a ride on the light rail, explains Shmulik Elgrabli, the project’s strategic adviser. But with Egged buses charging NIS 6.20 for a single ride and transfer, the light rail may be too expensive and inconvenient to attract Arab riders.
Not all Jerusalemites may be comfortable sitting together. Recent CityPass surveys among the residents of Pisgat Ze’ev about their attitude toward sharing the tram cars with Arab riders drew criticism about racism.
Moreover, Naveh’s comment that every third or fourth car could be reserved as women-only to attract haredi riders drew a sharp rebuke from Jerusalem city council member Rachel Azaria. “Naveh is apparently unaware of the High Court’s ruling forbidding further [gender] segregation,” she said.
Another problem is the question of how bus routes will feed into the new system. Though a map of the new bus routes has yet to be published, Elgrabli promised an end to the current “spaghetti” of routes crisscrossing the capital.
“With that first line, we will also introduce six new express bus lines that will go across the city,” he said. “There will be 150 new buses for the six lines, and at peak hours those buses will run every six to seven minutes.”
Neighborhoods to be served by the high-speed buses include Gilo, Har Homa, Har Nof and Ramot, he promised.
A second light rail line is planned to piggyback on the Red Line, with spurs leading to Mount Scopus in the east and Givat Ram in the west. As well, the Red Line will be extended in the north to Neveh Ya’acov and in the southwest to Hadassah Ein Kerem. No time frame has been made public for these new lines.
“Jerusalemites have suffered over recent years, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz told the reporters at Monday’s initial run. “And we intend to invest significant sums for the additional development of the train, in the opening up of the entrance to Jerusalem and the development of a railway from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.”
After repeated delays, that high-speed train – burrowed through the Judean Hills and arriving at the new Jerusalem Central Station 80 meters underground facing Binyenei Ha’uma and the Central Bus Station on Jaffa Road – is now slated to begin service in 2017.
Bottom line? In another seven years Jerusalemites will be able to comfortably commute to jobs in Gush Dan or get to the beach in under an hour.