Slow start for fast train

train 88 (photo credit: )
train 88
(photo credit: )
It isn't scheduled to open until 2011, but the planned high-speed railway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is already causing concern in government offices responsible for the budget and defense. Considered a priority project by Israel Railways, the so-called A-1 railway is budgeted at NIS 4 billion and intended to shuttle passengers between Israel's two largest cities in well under an hour. Between four and six trains will complete the intercity trip each hour during rush hour, easing the commute between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for both train passengers and those driving between the two cities. For most of its length, the planned railway will run parallel to the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, veering from that path as it approaches Jerusalem. According to proposals dating back to at least the late Nineties, the train will stop in Modi'in before heading to its final stop not far from Jerusalem's central bus station. Those plans were called into question, however, following a recent decision by Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to accept the recommendations by police and security officials to re-route of Israel's security barrier in areas near the proposed railway. According to the new plan, the Palestinian village of Beit Iksa, located on the northern edge of Jerusalem, will no longer be included on the Israeli side of the barrier, and will instead be cordoned off from Jerusalem by the barrier. The security barrier's new route will put it significantly closer to the high-speed railway, in some places within a few dozen meters. Though the railway will now be separated from Beit Iksa and other Palestinian areas by the fence, police and officials of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) fear its close proximity to the security barrier will make it a target of rocks and bullets from the Palestinian side. Causing further concern is the cost of the line, which some officials fear could rise to as much as NIS 6b. or NIS 7b. In an interview published earlier this month, Olmert told Yediot Aharonot, "The line is wildly expensive and its construction will take years. It has to be stopped in Modi'in." Asked about the statement, officials at the Prime Minister's Office stopped short of saying that Olmert would push for the cancellation of the railway's construction. Instead, in a statement issued to In Jerusalem, they wrote that the acting prime minister had met with representatives of the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry and directed them to submit "alternatives for the use of moneys allocated to be invested in the railway, alternatives that will contribute to residents of Jerusalem." After alternative plans have been developed, the statement continued, representatives of Israel Railways will be contacted to meet with the prime minister and Industry, Trade and Labor officials to decide on possible alterations to the railway's route. The Defense Ministry, meanwhile, says it's studying the path of the security barrier near Beit Iksa but would consider proposing changes only to the route of the fence - not to the railway itself. According to Rachel Nidek-Ashkenazi, a ministry spokesperson, changes to the path of the barrier will be made to protect Ramot, Mevaseret Zion, and service routes into Jerusalem. Efforts will be made to minimize the effects of the barrier on Palestinians left on its eastern side, she went on, with particular attention paid to preventing the loss of private property, farmland and freedom of movement. As security planners make adjustments to the barrier's route, they'll be expected to keep in mind environmental concerns and the integrity of nearby archeological sites, she added. The safety of train passengers will take precedence in any change to the path of the barrier, however, with Nidek-Ashkenazi concluding, "There is no need to change the route of the railway." Israel Railways is less convinced that its original construction plans will remain intact as the various government offices move forward. "We know that the line should move, but we don't know where," a spokesperson for the company said earlier this week. "We'll see what the government decides." Despite its expectation that the train's route will change, Israel Railways is moving forward with work to prepare the ground for its new line. Already under way for over a year, construction along the proposed railway is continuing, the representative said - including on the estimated NIS 500 million stretch between Modi'in and Jerusalem. With construction still in its early stages, however, he added that builders were "not so close" to laying down tracks for the new railway. "This is a very good line," he said. "A lot of people will take this train."