Right on track

After years of delays, one of the partners in City Pass, which will build the light rail, is moving full steam ahead.

light train 88 (photo credit: )
light train 88
(photo credit: )
In the sleepy harbor town of La Rochelle in southwestern France, a train company is hard at work on Jerusalem's light rail. After years of financial and bureaucratic delays, the Alstom Company, one of the partners in City Pass, the private international conglomerate that will build the rail, finally feels it has been given the green light for the new transport system - and it is moving full steam ahead. "This is one of our most important projects, it is so much bigger than the train itself," said Alstom president Philippe Mellier at the company's headquarters in Paris. "Jerusalem is an international symbol, a city that the whole world looks to. Our company is giving a lot of attention to this project." Even before the actual building began, the company devoted countless man hours to the acquisition of the tender, says Mellier, adding that the fight for the tender lasted over a year. When Alstom was finally granted the tender on March 3, 2002, it was expected to secure financing within one year. It took the company three times as long to secure the financing, however, and the contract officially began on January 15, 2006. "It was completely unrealistic for us to secure financing in that time period," says Charles Carlier, the senior vice president of South Europe Business. According to Carlier, the intifada played a major role in deterring investors, who were wary of financing a project in Jerusalem. "We knew that as soon as we secured, however, we would operate on time." Carlier himself played a major role in pushing Alstom to fight for the contract. The VP visited Israel during the first year of the business negotiations, and was impressed by the "modern and innovative" nature of Israeli society. "I didn't know what to expect in Israel, but I found a modern, energetic society with real business potential," said Carlier. His experience in Israel caused him to urge the company's president to fight for the contract."It is never an easy thing to work in Israel, it is a controversial place," he continues. "We do not see the controversy though, we see the potential." But the company has already been affected by controversy. The three-year delay has raised criticism over Alstom's ability to operate in the Israeli market. The original plan by Alstom called for a series of eight lines to run through Jerusalem in a grid-like pattern stretching across the city. At the moment, however, the plans call for a single line running through the city center from Herzl Boulevard in Beit Hakerem to Pisgat Ze'ev. Jerusalem Municipality officials are still debating a planned extension to Neveh Ya'acov and the Hebrew University campus. According to light rail spokesman Shmulik Elgrably, another bus line from Derech Hebron to the entrance to Ramot will be launched at the same time. Another four to five lines are currently being planned. Trains, he explains, are not necessarily central to the transportation system. "If a new type of bus is invented in the meantime, we will definitely consider using buses instead of trams," he says. Alstom officials say that the light rail tram could hold 465 passengers, the rough equivalent of 150 cars. The current launch date of the new light rail is set at January 16, 2009. According to officials at the Alstom headquarters the project is running on schedule and should be completed by that date. "If there is any delay we [Alstom] lose money - it's in our interest to finish ahead of time," says Alain Toubiana, the Israel country president. While few details about the planned Jerusalem train could be released for security reasons, Alstom officials acknowledged that the transport system required "unique" adjustments due to the "unusual demands of the Israeli situation." The glass of the train will be thicker than that normally used, and will be plated with bulletproof glass, says one engineer. The train has also been adjusted so that equipment normally stored at the bottom of the train will be moved to the top, and plated over with a protective cover. The measure was taken to prevent possible explosives from being hidden in the equipment or thrown onto the moving train where it could catch on crevices between the equipment. "There are a number of security precautions being taken," adds another engineer. He points out, however, that the security on the train itself will be controlled by Israeli officials who will decide where, and how, to station security personnel. Problems with the steep gradient of Jerusalem Hills were easily solved, say Alstom engineers, as none of the areas in which the train will be running have a gradient of over 9 percent. Back in La Rochelle, the factory workers often joke about where the trains they are building will reach. The first cabin of the Jerusalem light rail has been completed ahead of schedule, and the nose of the compartment stands bare, waiting for the decorative emblem, Jerusalem's lion of Judea, to adorn it. Within six months, said one engineer, the entire train will be complete and ready to be transported to Jerusalem. "As soon as they send us the final design for the lion, we can glue it on and have it ready," he says. "There is a joke here that we are working on as holy train." The writer was a guest of Alstom.