40,000 ride Israel’s first light rail in Jerusalem

Minor delays as Israel inaugurated its first light rail; NIS 4 billion Jerusalem tram took more than a decade to complete.

Jerusalem light rail 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jerusalem light rail 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
More than 40,000 people crowded onto 14 light rail trains on Friday as Jerusalem inaugurated the country’s first light rail, a day that was more than a decade and NIS 4 billion in the making.
There were minor delays and technical issues, mostly due to the sheer number of people trying to travel on the system’s first day of operation.
When the train is fully operational, it is expected to carry 100,000 people on a weekday from 5:30 a.m. to past midnight, or 30 million rides per year.
The train rides were offered free of charge on Friday, and they will continue to be free for the first few weeks of operation.
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Tickets will cost NIS 6.40, the same as a bus ride in the capital, and will allow unlimited rides on trains and buses for 90 minutes through the RavKav card.
“Everyone is excited, this is a real event,” Yehuda Shoshani, the CEO of the CityPass consortium, which built and now operates the light rail, told The Jerusalem Post as he boarded a crowded train across from Safra Square and city hall. “This is an historic event, and the happiness of the residents is evident.
“This is a modern, new, green mode of transportation that can not only fix gaps in tourism but also give a message of tolerance and patience. The trains are full of Jerusalem residents – secular, religious, Arab and haredi,” he said.
Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat canceled their ride on the train because of the previous day’s terrorist attack in the South.
“It was a highly anticipated event and it was flawless,” said Hagai Bichler, a resident of the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood who came with his wife, Sivan, and sons Binyamin and Avner.
“They were very excited, they’ve been waiting to go on this tram for a while. They could see them go by without any people inside [during testing], so they’re very happy,” Bichler said.
Though the mood was celebratory, not all of the riders were convinced the train was a sound investment.
“I’m not so optimistic, there were so many stories in the news of all these problems that it’s hard to be optimistic,” said Dan Kaffeman, from Abu Tor.
He said the train did not serve his neighborhood so he was doubtful he would use it on a regular basis, and dismissed it as a “tourist attraction.”
Store owners along Jaffa Road were cautiously hopeful that Friday represented a turning point.
“It was really hard and we suffered a lot,” said Yaakov Levi, who has owned the Na’ale Yafit shoe store for 10 years. He estimated he lost upward of 60 percent of his customers during the construction of the light rail.
“This will help, now that there’s a train maybe they’ll come back,” he said.
Levi said the landlords had doubled the rent for stores along the light rail route, and his own rent went from NIS 10,000 per month to NIS 22,000 because of its location along the line.
“The City Center Community Council really thinks it was a big mistake to [build the light rail] here,” said council member Kami Malcon, owner of the Malcon men’s clothing store, where he has worked for 30 years.
“Lots of people went out of business, and I don’t know if it will ever be up to the level that it was [before the light rail],” he said.
Despite concern expressed by some riders about the trains’ route through the Arab neighborhoods of Shuafat and Beit Hanina, the train passed without incident though them, and a few residents got on and off the cars.
Tunsi, an Arab resident of the Jewish Pisgat Ze’ev neighborhood, with a prayer rug slung over his shoulder, said the train represented an excellent way to get to the Old City for prayers during Ramadan, when parking is a nightmare there.
“This will make it so much easier,” he said.