Light rail’s start may be delayed by 3 months

Derailment, infighting lead to another round of delays.

Jerusalem light rail 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Jerusalem light rail 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Although light rail trains are rolling along the tracks in downtown Jerusalem with soothing regularity, the start date for the train continues to get farther and farther away.
The train is officially still slated to begin carrying passengers in mid-August, but transportation officials are certain that the train won’t start operation until after the holidays in late October or November.
The main problem is the question of traffic lights. After years of arguments, the light rail finally won “preference” at intersections, meaning the trains will get a green light as they approach an intersection, and cars will have to wait. But CityPass, the company tasked with running the trains and the operating system, still has to program nearly 100 traffic lights and embed 50 sensors along the light rail tracks that will trigger the traffic lights to change. They have embedded four of the 50 sensors so far.
The light rail is still in its testing period, during which the trains and drivers must pass a series of rigorous testing by an international light rail safety company. Last week during the testing, one of the trains shifted off the tracks and became temporary derailed, leading the safety company to conclude that further testing is needed.
CityPass officials played down the importance of the derailment, and noted that many light rail systems experience similar problems during the testing period. In other cities with light rail derailments, the culprit was usually traced to improper alignment of the switching mechanism that allows the train to move from one track to the other.
Because the trains are slow moving, there are very rarely injuries.
The typical testing period for a city’s light rail system is between six to nine months, though Jerusalem’s testing period will be a year and four months in August, according to transportation officials.
CityPass spokesperson Ozel Vatik said the company was still aiming for the mid-August start date, but that it would be a difficult path. “If not everyone makes an effort, there will be a problem,” said Vatik.
“In order to get to August, we need everyone, the state, the municipality, the Transportation Ministry, the Finance Ministry, and the police to make every effort,” he said.
“Everyone will need to work in cooperation day and night.”
However, CityPass, a conglomerate of French companies which won the tender to build the light rail, is experiencing severe infighting between the Alstom and Veolia companies, The Marker reported this week. The infighting, including a labor dispute between the train drivers and Veolia, as well as European Muslim pressure on the French companies to pull out of the Israeli project, has contributed to the delays.
“Until now, we haven’t received any request from CityPass to change the scheduled date,” said Shmuel Elgrabli, spokesman for the Jerusalem Transportation Master Plan, which is overseeing the light rail project. “They need to make an effort, an even bigger effort, to finish the project.” An arbitration court ruled that CityPass will be fined for any delay, though the size of the fine has not yet been discussed.
The mood among transportation officials was one of resigned acceptance, that if the city has waited a decade for the light rail, a delay of two or three months won’t change much. “Even with all of the setbacks, Jerusalem is the first city in Israel to have a light rail and it’s important to remember that this will cause a big change in the city,” said Elgrabli.
Other aspects of the light rail are moving forward. Approximately 45,000 Jerusalem residents have signed up for the RavKav, an electronic card like the one used in Tel Aviv, which will provide bus and light rail fares, though Egged and City- Pass are still arguing over the prices.
Next week, police may start fining drivers who inch forward towards the tracks at red lights, in an effort to avoid some of the traffic accidents that have plagued the system.