The not-so fast track

The Jerusalem Light Rail continues to weigh me down.

Jerusalem light rail 311 (photo credit: iTravelJerusalem)
Jerusalem light rail 311
(photo credit: iTravelJerusalem)
They say good things are worth waiting for. When it comes to Jerusalem’s light rail, I’m still waiting. For the good part, that is.
In February I wrote a column under the headline “Taken for a ride,” in which I described the frustration of bus passengers in the capital as they watched the empty light rail trams pass them on endless test runs while the rest of the traffic didn’t seem to move.
At the time, I called the strategic adviser of the light rail, Shmuel Elgrabli, for a response.
“What you are focusing on are the birth pangs,” he told me. “Instead of concentrating on the labor, you should wait for the baby to be born.”
The light rail has been operating since August. I think I’m suffering from the traveler’s equivalent of postnatal depression.
I was thinking of calling another official for the project. Their statements have at least given me a laugh.
Take, for example, the near accident that occurred when both the tram and private vehicles simultaneously had a green light.
Unfazed, a spokesman explained that this kind of mishap could be expected until January, when the synchronization of all the traffic lights is scheduled to finally be complete.
Somehow, I did not find this comforting. I know that Jerusalem is the Holy City and this is the land of miracles, but I happen to think that most of us have enough excitement in our daily lives without having to play Russian roulette with the traffic lights, not yet adapted to the operation of the light rail. It’s like a bad joke: The timing is all wrong.
In an interview with the Post’s Peggy Cidor last month, Yehuda Shoshani, the CEO of CityPass, the company that built and operates the light rail, had some even more laughable answers.
“People have also complained that there are not enough seats. Of course not!” he said.
“After all, a trip by light rail shouldn’t be long, so why sit down unless you’re a senior? It’s just that people are still not used to the upgraded kind of service they are going to get from us. I’m sure things will improve very quickly.”
I just couldn’t take that response sitting down. I’m among those who have found it hard to get a seat on the light rail.
This type of service is indeed not something I want to become accustomed to.
Of course one reason that the light rail is so crowded is because journeys, so far, have been free. And passengers have been getting their money’s worth.
This is not purely a public relations exercise as the company would like you to believe.
The light rail was some 10 years in the making, destroying life and commerce in the city center for the best (or worst) part of that decade. Incredibly, during all those years nobody actually figured out how to make sure the computerized ticket system would accept the much-vaunted pre-paid card intended for both the light rail and Egged buses.
No wonder getting the traffic lights to give the train priority has been a gargantuan task.
Shoshani, however, pinned high hopes on the ultimate reconfiguration of the traffic lights. It will allow for more trains to run, hopefully on time.
“Once the transportation system is synchronized, the light rail will finally attain the position it deserves,” he said. “Buses will serve the neighborhoods and convey people to and from the light rail stations in conditions the residents are not used to.”
I’d hazard a guess that Shoshani does not use public transport very often. I bet he has a company car. So I’d just like to point out that people don’t want to be conveyed to and from the light rail. They want to be conveyed – comfortably – between their home and destination of choice, be it the market, health clinic or workplace. As for the conditions...
I have tried to use the light rail, but my more recent attempts have resulted in false starts.
On one occasion, I tried to take the rail at least part of the way home from work. The main road was blocked to cars and buses by that oh-so-Israeli phenomenon, a “hefetz hashud.” While all traffic stopped for the bomb squad to deal with the “suspicious object,” I crossed Jaffa Road, using an almost-synchronized traffic light, and waited for the light rail. The electronic board stated that there were 13 minutes until the next train. I waited – patiently – until there were only eight minutes to go, at which point CityPass pulled off a stunt I’m really not used to. It made time stand still. And then go backwards.
When I gave up, the board indicated there was still a quarter of an hour wait for the next train.
The only other time the light rail could have been useful for me was when I needed to travel early one morning to and from Mount Herzl, the train’s final destination.
That was the morning of the strike. The drivers stepped up sanctions in a labor dispute just two months after the start of operations, partly over their pay and partly over conditions.
Touchingly, one of the complaints I’ve heard is that bus drivers enticed to move over to the light rail feel isolated in the steel cabins.
Let’s face it: Israeli bus passengers are noisy, argumentative and at times very annoying. You might have thought that the drivers would jump at the chance to not have to deal with them, but the drivers, too, are Israeli. They apparently feel like they are in solitary confinement when they don’t have any interaction with the travelers (even if much of the conversation focuses on the trials of the light rail.) In fact, the one time I managed to take a uncrowded ride on the light rail, one of the things that bothered me was the lack of interaction among passengers. Those of us who regularly take the same bus in the morning chat.
That’s why I was more than a little upset to come across a pamphlet detailing the new bus routes, designed to link up to the light rail.
“Are you used to traveling from Katamon to the Central Bus Station with the No. 13?” asked the pamphlet in bold type.
Yes! I eagerly read on. But the fine print contained a blow.
This will no longer be possible. This journey, which has suited me just fine for years, is apparently not in CityPass’s best interests.
In the near future – how near the leaflet did not say (perhaps they have learned the hazards of giving target dates) – the route will stop in the center of town and passengers will be expected to smilingly disembark, come rain or shine, and transfer to a tram.
I mentioned this new decree to some fellow bus passengers. They weren’t shocked. They definitely weren’t silent.
These fellow travelers are not strangers. We are the same crowd that has collectively negotiated suspicious objects and worse.
Unlike so many downtown store-owners, we have even survived the construction of the light rail.
Every day, we get on at the same stops and swap everything from news and views to recipes and leisure time recommendations.
We are what three-year-old Evyatar, on his way to his kindergarten, calls his “bus friends.” Some are so old that even Shoshani probably expects them to be eligible for a seat on the light rail; others are students.
A camaraderie exists among us, developed by the amount of time we have spent in a tin box going nowhere fast.
The thought that this is the end of the line for our little circle of middle-of-the-road acquaintances is hard to accept.
I expect that I will eventually adapt, but in the meantime, the light rail is giving me a heavy heart.