The Jerusalem Light Rail and me

When the train arrived, people pushed toward the open doors to get in. As I moved with them, the doors to the train shut right on me.

Light rail (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Light rail
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
On this visit to Jerusalem, its new light rail train (JLR) held great excitement for me. After hearing about it for years and seeing more areas of the city dug up on each successive trip, I was ready to ride the rails.
The JLR did not disappoint. My initial encounter was watching it move out of the Mahaneh Yehuda station – a sunlit gleaming capsule situated against the pre-modern shuk surroundings.
Nothing short of wonder and awe.
Before actually riding the train, I met a Jerusalemite who warned me of some pitfalls. She cautioned me about tricky and often failing ticket machines, aggressive inspectors and fines. Her advice: Get a RavKav card, a mechanized ticket on which you could load money and therefore avoid all these pitfalls. Armed with insider information, I began my JLR adventures.
As instructed, I went to the central bus station to buy my card. I found a nondescript office that housed a couple of workers sitting at a desk. I asked to purchase a RavKav card.
“Do you live here?” one worker asked.
“Yes,” I said, thinking that my one month rental was life at the moment.
“Do you have Jerusalem ID?” she asked dubiously.
I came clean. No, I did not. She then told me I could not get a card, which was only for Jerusalem residents.
No ID, no card. The only way to avoid the machine: Come to her office each day and buy a ticket. A ticket must be bought each and every day and not before. I bought a ticket and hopped on a train. Nirvana, I thought.
As instructed, I put my ticket in the validation machine and took it out.
A red light beamed. Another passenger watched me, shook his head, grabbed my ticket, turned it over and stuck it in again. This time a green light. He handed me back my ticket and told me that I had done it wrong. I learned my first valuable JLR lesson. How to use and, importantly, interpret the validation machine.
Temporary bliss ensued.
For my next ride, I used the ticket machine (going to the central bus station for my ticket seemed excessive).
Luckily with no one waiting behind me, I pushed a slew of buttons, put in the exact change and a ticket came out. Success. But my JLR confidence disintegrated with my next effort.
This time I again approached the ticket machine with exact change. I had six 1-shekel coins and six 10- agorot coins, 12 coins in all. I pushed all the buttons, put in the shekels but alas, the machine rejected my shekels. No ticket.
The man behind me stepped up to help. Helping those who flounder with machines, I found, was due to self-interest, because lines of would be riders quickly formed.
I told him the machine did not like my shekels. He took my money in hand. Before he inserted each shekel, he rubbed its edge against the metal machine.
“Magic?” I thought. “It likes my shekels,” he exclaimed.
But within moments, calamity. All of the money he inserted dropped out of the machine. No ticket. We (and it was now a sizable number of people) had all missed one train and another was approaching. I decided to take my chances and board absent a ticket and prevailed in getting to my stop without encountering the dreaded ticket inspector. This more challenging JLR encounter left me insecure.
Yet I remained determined to ride again. I sought more knowledge and turned to the Net. The CityPass website was in Hebrew and the English tab did not work. I turned to the Egged bus website which, although in English, said nothing about the JLR.
The lack of any JLR information on the Egged site was confusing. I had heard that Egged had eliminated some bus routes because the JLR and the buses were to work in tandem, that one would take a bus to the light rail and vice versa. Egged, however, had no information about connecting to the JLR. This seemed a bit bizarre.
Undaunted, I forged ahead, this time with a 10-shekel coin in hand.
The machine gives change. I had seen this myself. But when I put in my coin, the machine spit it out. I tried again, and again and again.
Lines forming, tension mounting. I had learned to tune out the frustrated muttering behind me – a necessary JLR skill, almost as important as using the validation machine.
I then noticed a message on the machine asking me to insert a 20- shekel bill. I pulled one out, slipped it in and le voila, a ticket and change. No applause from the crowd but I felt good.
With no train approaching, I took the time to read the large detailed sign about taking the train. I came across an important rule – the machine took only 10 coins per transaction. This meant that my earlier exact change of 12 coins had been doomed from the start. Yet another vital piece of newfound JLR knowledge.
With another new day, I tried again. I planned my next venture – to take the JLR and then catch a bus to my final destination. I got my ticket, no sweat, and got to the JLR stop but could not see a bus stop. I asked yet another helpful passenger who said, “Follow me.” We marched around the corner and I saw the stop about two blocks away. I also saw my intended bus leave without me. I waited 15 minutes for the next one.
Another JLR challenge.
I innovated. This time I took a bus that I had heard would leave me right at the JLR station. How could I go wrong? As the bus approached the JLR stop, I saw a train at the station.
This would be easy, I thought. I got off the bus and began my walk across the platform to get on the train. But as I approached, the train left. Huh? I thought.
I turned to a fellow passenger to comment that this seemed a bit odd.
“Odd?” he screamed. “This is Israel.”
He proceeded to lambaste the entire CityPass enterprise. I had made a friend, something I found that is easy to do using the JLR. To ride the JLR, people need each other. Maybe it’s a social experiment I thought and they’re just not telling us.
My new friend was adamant that JLR drivers were not instructed to wait for connecting buses, the “it’s not my job” theory of why things work the way they do. I decided to test this idea with evidence. On another ride, I got on up front right behind the driver to watch what he did.
The driver’s seat positioned him to look straight ahead. The mirrors he had showed him the area around the doors, not much else. It seemed to me that by design, the driver could not easily turn around to look at anything, certainly not an approaching bus. My friend was right, I thought.
Driving the JLR required knowing what was ahead and by the doors, not much else.
On one of my last trips this visit, I waited with a large group of people.
When the train arrived, people pushed toward the open doors to get in. As I moved with them, the doors to the train shut right on me.
Unharmed, I was locked out. People behind me yelled, grumbled and pushed. But to no avail. Now I knew how the driver managed when he thought there were too many passengers.
Upon returning to my home city, I needed to take a train the other day.
I got to the station, approached the ticket agent, and bought a ticket. I got on the train. The conductor collected my ticket.
How boring, I thought. I miss Jerusalem.
The writer is a professor and undergraduate chairwoman of the Department of Sociology at Temple University.