The Ottoman train challenge

The new fast lane underlines the need for a more straightforward solution to chronic traffic jams: a decent railway between J'lem and TA.

train 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
train 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
On Friday a new express toll lane was opened that aims to alleviate chronic traffic jams at the entrance to Tel Aviv. The new 13-km. lane stretches from the Ben-Gurion interchange to the Kibbutz Galuyot interchange on Route 1. At rush hour, drivers approaching Tel Aviv on that highway will have the option of driving on the new lane for a fee that will fluctuate: the worse the traffic jams, the higher the toll.
It is not clear how successful this novel experiment will be. What is clear is that this is a rich man’s solution. Under normal circumstances the toll price is expected to range between NIS 6 and NIS 25, but it could reach as high as NIS 75. True, private vehicles with four or more passengers can use the lane for free, but to receive that exemption the driver must wait in line at the entrance to the lane and show that he or she is carrying at least three passengers – which, depending on the length of the wait, could defeat the purpose.
MORE THAN anything, however, the project, built by a private contractor at a cost of NIS 500 million, underlines the desperate need for a more straightforward solution to our chronic traffic jams: a decent railway connecting Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Under Ottoman rule, a railway that traveled between Jerusalem and Jaffa in three and a half hours was completed in four years by a French contractor between 1888 and 1892. Yet after almost two decades of deliberations, modern Israel, for all its achievements from agriculture to hi-tech to medicine, has failed to complete a highspeed railway project that efficiently connects its two largest cities.
In fact, it took the Jewish state seven years, from 1998 to 2005, just to refurbish the dilapidated old Ottoman-era line. With the trip taking an hour and forty minutes, compared to just under an hour by bus, the logic of this project was dubious.
According to the most recent projections, a high-speed railway worthy of its name will be up and running in 2017. However, judging from from their track record it would be foolhardy to expect the powers-that-be to meet even this distant deadline.
Since the mid-1990s a myriad of factors have come together to prevent various governments from agreeing upon a high-speed railway project. No fewer than eight different routes for the railway were considered by almost the same number of transportation ministers. Projects endorsed by one minister were discontinued by another. At times the purported railway was approved as a “national project” which would allow it to bypass regional planning committees. At other times it was not.
Some interior ministers were enthusiastic about the idea of a Tel Aviv-Jerusalem railway. Others were not. Environmental activists attempted to torpedo projects that endangered the landscape. Residents protested about the noise of a train running past their homes. Budgetary restraints tended to mitigate in favor of projects that were most detrimental to the environment and that disturbed residents. Palestinians, meanwhile, protested the use of land for the railway that fell beyond the Green Line. The list of delays was interminable.
Now, finally, it seems the project is well under way with all segments of the railway tendered out to different construction firms as of last July. The total cost of the project is estimated at NIS 6 billion.
Sadly, recent events have shown that even when a railroad line exists there is no guarantee that it will provide efficient service. A full one-third of our railway fleet has been temporarily decommissioned, causing inconvenience and delays to thousands of passengers.
At the end of December a fire broke out, apparently due to mechanical failure, in an intercity three-carriage (IC3) train. About 100 passengers were lightly injured; they were forced to break the windows of the train when the doors failed to open. Until the specific cause of the incident has been established and steps taken to prevent a recurrence, all IC3 trains have been taken out of use.
In parallel, railway workers are threatening to strike in protest against plans to outsource maintenance work on 78 new coaches purchased last year from Canadian manufacturer Bombardier.
But while occasional delays caused by strikes or freak mechanical failures may be largely unavoidable or unforeseeable, or both, there is no excuse for the never-ending saga of the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem railway. A dubious lone toll lane on the highway will not change that fact.