Urban training ground

On a tour of the light rail project, 'In Jerusalem' discovers that untested machinery is behind the delays.

jlem light rail 2 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
jlem light rail 2
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
As we leave the CityPass office to begin our tour of the light rail site, spokesman Itcho Gur realizes he's forgotten something: two shiny yellow hard hats with not a spot of construction grit on them. He scoops the hats up off his desk in his sleek office in the Jerusalem International Convention Center and stows them under his arm. "Just in case," he says, even though there is little chance of encountering dangerous construction work. The CityPass consortium is carrying out the much-delayed, often hapless Jerusalem light rail project, which has been plagued by construction woes, endlessly closed streets and a projected completion date that keeps moving further into the future. The latest incident involves sophisticated track-laying machinery imported from France that has simply failed to function properly. The device, called the Appitrack, should be able to lay tracks at least four times faster than human hands. On average, a team of workers can lay 20 to 30 meters of track per day, while the machinery should be able to lay up to 170 meters a day. The technology that should be laying track at an admirable rate throughout the city works via a twofold process. First, the SlipForm machine - a concrete spreader - tightens a secondary layer of wet cement. Second, the Appitrack machine rolls over the wet cement and sticks in the pins and plates like candles into birthday cake. When the cement dries, the pins are in place and the rails can be laid accurately and efficiently. So what went wrong? According to light rail spokesman Shmuel Elgrabli, this is the first light rail project in the world to decide to use the Appitrack device. It was built in France and tested in the factory there, but never used before on an actual urban track. CityPass dug up the street along Sderot Herzl all at once since it thought it could lay the track in a couple of days. But lack of experience, different conditions from France and "growing pains" meant delays, as the concrete below the tracks was wobbly in some places, and 250 meters at the beginning point at Mount Herzl had to be removed after it was laid down. As a result, there have been six months of delays, during which nothing has been done. "It has to have a clear corridor to get these figures," says Nadav Meroz, acting director of the Jerusalem Transportation Masterplan (designers of the light rail system), explaining that sporadic archeological findings as well as the process of clearing streets of buildings and other obstacles preclude the ability of the machines to run at all. Problems with new, untested machinery are not the only factors contributing to delays. "Two weeks ago, it was very hot and very humid," says Gur, pointing to a long strip of deserted track before us, the machinery in question nowhere to be seen. "[The heat] is a problem for the cement because there is a higher probability of it cracking." Aside from the "concrete" physical realities of laying track in Jerusalem, administrative and bureaucratic technicalities have bogged down the project again and again - particularly the process of applying for permits and licensing which Gur describes as being "much more complicated than we'd thought it would be. It has taken more money than we thought." These uncertainties on the part of the multinational CityPass consortium are no surprise to the Jerusalem Transportation Masterplan. Says Meroz, "They knew when they put their bid in for the project what the complexities would be. This is [CityPass's] problem - not the Ministry of Transportation's problem, not the [Jerusalem] municipality's problem. Complaints should go to the commissioner, not us. I believe that at the outset, [CityPass] did not understand the complexity of the project." According to Meroz, CityPass did not budget for enough workers to be used in the project and "only in the last few months did we see the commissioner recognize his mistake." CityPass's errors are, in part, a result of the steep learning curve for a country that has never before been able to implement a similar system. Laying urban track, which is mostly submerged under asphalt, is very different from laying track over the ground for inter-city trains, where Israel has much experience. The plans for a light rail in Jerusalem are not new. In the 1990s, Jerusalem saw a decline in the number of passengers taking public transportation. The city center was a mess of traffic congestion and businesses began a mass exodus. At that point, investors interested in funding a light rail system for the city couldn't be found. "Here in this building we heard the explosions - it was not a good time to establish the light rail," says Meroz of the Jerusalem Transportation Masterplan's initial delay of the project. Meroz has major plans for Jerusalem, perhaps the most ambitious of which is his plan to close Jaffa Road from City Hall to Mahaneh Yehuda, allowing only the light rail to pass through what will effectively become a pedestrian mall similar to that of Rehov Even Israel. In a move that Meroz believes will make transportation in the city center easier, in order to cross Jaffa Road from north to south by car, a driver will have to completely circumnavigate the city center, leading him all the way around the closed-off section of Jaffa before he can turn around to go to the other side. Meroz is also enthusiastic about some European municipalities that have installed cameras in their city centers to monitor the comings and goings of local vehicles in order to charge a permit fee to drive in the city itself. No such plans are currently on the table for Jerusalem. "Of course our proposal isn't attractive," he says of the infrastructure overhaul it would take to implement his plans, "[Jerusalemites] don't see 2010, they only see today." In spite of public discontent about the project, Meroz still feels that now is the best possible time for the light rail and the municipal revitalization that will come with it. According to Elgrabli, there are currently negotiations among the municipality, CityPass and the Treasury on delays (the last deadline was January 15, 2009 but, it will not be met) and who will pay for them. Now, he says, the company knows how to use the Appitrack properly, and he believes work can be resumed in a few weeks, to be supervised by the Israel Standards Institute. Still, the future of a light rail seems very far away. Leaving aside the issue of the tracks, there remains the fact that there are only two light rail cars currently in Israel - the full-scale project requires 64. By the end of our tour along the tracks, Gur admits that "we know it's impossible to open in 2009, of course - [but] we thought it's a very important project for the city." Despite it all, Gur feels there may be a silver lining in all this, at least for some: "It's a very unique project. We lack experience - all of us, all of the bodies involved. It will be easier in Tel Aviv when they decide to create a light rail because they will learn from our mistakes." Judy Siegel contributed to this report.