Can Israel pivot from cars to public transport?

Tel Aviv light rail Photo: Eyal Izhar

"Globes" examines Israel's biggest transport projects, which reflect a shift from cars to trains and buses. But will they relieve the congestion?

In the coming years, the already heavy traffic will only get worse. Relief, if any, is expected to come only in the middle of the present decade. A quick look at the launch dates for the flagship projects of the five government land transport companies makes this point clear.

The eastern railway line to be built jointly by Netivei Israel - National Transport Infrastructure Co. and Israel Railways is expected to open commercially only at the end of 2026, and the light rail serving northern residents even later. Moreover, in a great many cases, construction itself contributes to the traffic overload, as experienced by the residents of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for years, due to construction of their cities' light rail systems.

It's worth stress that all the major projects are for public transport rather than new roads for cars. This shows an understanding that public transport is the key to solving traffic jams. But learning this lesson has cost us years in traffic jams and billions down the drain, due to time lost on the road, and because infrastructure projects have become more expensive due to rising global commodity prices.

Another point to note in Israel's list of major projects is the government companies' versatility. For a long time now, Israel Railways has not had exclusive dominion over railway planning and construction, and even a roadworks company like TransIsrael (formerly Cross Israel Highways) knows how to run a light rail project.

Meaning that more and more Israeli bodies are specializing in professional knowledge, as well as giving the government companies real competition over projects and budgets, which should signal to the heads of those entities to start setting a high bar for specialization.

For example, in the not-too-distant future, Minister of Finance Avigdor Liberman and Minister Transport of Merav Michaeli are expected to announce the company that will manage Israel's largest infrastructure project - the Metro - the planned subway system for the Tel Aviv metropolitan region. It's not for certain that they will choose the current project manager, NTA Metropolitan Mass Transit System.

Following are Israel's five largest transport projects, all in stages of planning and construction.

The Red Line: "Next year will see a transformation"

Of all the government companies projects, the Red Line light rail, managed by NTA is the only one expected to open next year. But there's no need for celebration, as this line should have been completed a decade ago, but was delayed due to countless errors and mismanagement. Even now, many are skeptical, despite NTA's CEO Haim Glick assurances that the Red Line will open commercially in November 2022.

The Red Line connects Petah Tikva to Bat Yam, and passes through Ramat Gan, Bnei Brak and Tel Aviv. It is 24 kilometers long, with 34 stations, 10 of which are in a 11 kilometer underground section (in the Tel Aviv region). According to NTA forecasts, about a quarter of a million passengers will use it each year.

The Red line will allow passengers to travel from satellite cities to the bustling center of Tel Aviv in 10-20 minutes. Glick recently explained the interval between trains would be three and a half minutes, with each train transporting 500 passengers.

The Red Line is one of three Light Rail Transit (LRT) lines being built by NTA, as part of the Dankal mass transit system (formerly called MetroTLV). The Green and Purple lines - connecting many more cities in the metropolis to the central region's light rails - will begin operating much later, and according to current work plans will become operational only in 2027.

Despite the delays in completing the Red Line, there seems no rush to get the other two lines started. Announcing the winners of the Public Private Partnership (PPP) tender for operating the Green and Purple lines has been delayed for many months now. There have been reports that the Ministry of Transport, under former Minister Miri Regev, delayed the decision due to talks over vacating residents of Tel Aviv's Kfar Shalem neighborhood, on the Purple Line route. But even today, the issue has not become a priority and the awarding the tenders continues to be delayed, pushing back project scheduled further.

Leading the project are NTA CEO Glick, Deputy CEO Keren Zohar, and VPs Udi Kaplansky and Itamar Goldberger.

"Next year will see a transformation. After years of promises, the Red Line light rail will begin moving. This is an important and central step on the way to establishing a mass transit system that includes three LRT lines and three Metro lines, carrying tens of millions of passengers a year in safety and comfort, with no traffic jams and with minimal air pollution. This system is the order of the day, and NTA is fully mobilized to meet this goal."

The fast lanes: Success depends on behavioral change

The only non-railway project among the large ones promoted by government companies is being implemented by Ayalon Highways: the fast toll road project. Although the project centers around building additional lanes on roads we all know - the Ayalon (Road 20), the Coastal Road (Road 2), and Road 5 - its emphasis is entirely on public transport.

One such project has been operating successfully for years from the Shapirim Interchange east of Tel Aviv on Road 1 with a large car park that has just doubled in size and free shuttle buses to Tel Aviv and the Ramat Gan Diamond Exchange.

The projects aim to significantly relieve congestion at the entrances to Tel Aviv, and the industrial and office parks on its outskirts, as well as busy areas in neighboring cities (the Ramat Gan Diamond Exchange District, the Herzliya Industrial Zone, and others).

For the project to succeed, a huge number of drivers will need to adjust habits, and enter the city without their cars.

As part of the project, new lanes will be built for public transport only, or for vehicles that carry three or more people. All buses will be allowed on these lanes, but the majority of use is intended for shuttles departing from two huge parking lots: 3,500 spaces near Shefayim, and 7,000 spaces near Rishon LeZion’s Superland amusement park. Hundreds of parking spaces will be built in each parking lot, including for motorbikes, scooters and bicycles. The goal is for drivers to park their vehicles and board free shuttles, which will depart every five minutes (during peak hours) to major destinations. Expectations are that the project will serve over 13,000 drivers per day. Ayalon Highways notes will build bicycle paths leading to the parking lots.

The project will be carried out through the PPP model: the franchisee will plan, execute, operate and maintain the system for 14 years. Last year, the "Path to the City" group, which includes Denya Cebus, Electra Concessions, Afikim Advanced Transportation Services, and Dan Public Transportation, won the tender. Around 2025, the southern section of the project is expected to become operational, including the huge Rishon Lezion parking lot. A year after that, the northern section is also expected to be ready, and by 2027 (as per preliminary forecasts) the Highway 5 roadways.

The Highway 5 project is among the next tenders soon to be announced, which may be of interest only to companies in the sector. Heading the project on behalf of Ayalon Highways are Uzi Levin, VP of Entrepreneurial Projects, and Boris Malkov, Head of the Franchise Division. Reuven Kogan, who previously held senior positions in the Ministry of Finance and Israel Railways, heads the project on behalf of Path to the City.

"The fast lanes project will transform the travel experience from end to end for the tens of thousands of Israelis travelling each day to work in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, in addition to significant savings in time and money. Ayalon Highways is proud to lead and advance a range of transportation solutions that will be an alternative to the private car," says Ayalon Highways CEO Itamar Ben-Meir.

Nofit: The light rail of the north

When Israelis talk about LRTs, the reference is mainly to the light rail network in Jerusalem, or the one that is progressing (sluggishly) in Tel Aviv. But the northern region is also considering a light rail. If all goes according to plan, in six years one will be able to board an LTR in Nazareth, pass through the suburban Krayot stations, and reach Haifa, without the need for a private car. This regional project - the Nofit LRT - will serve the residents of the north, and aims to create fast, accessible, available transportation route by inter-connecting the Haifa metropolitan region.

This scenic light rail route will cover about 41 kilometers, crossing 10 regional councils and local authorities. The route will begin at Haifa Bay Central Station and pass through Kiryat Ata, continue along Road 79 near the towns of Shefar'am, Reina, Mashhad, Bir al-Maksur, then enter the Galilee region, and terminate in Nazareth. 20 "Park & Ride" stations and parking lots will be built along this line. As part of the project, about 30 trains will operate at 4-10 minute intervals, at speeds of up to 100 km/h in the interurban section. TransIsrael expects Nofit to serve 100,000 passengers a day.

This PPP project is advancing in two infrastructure ("Infra") phases: the current Infra 1 phase includes planning, relocating and renewing infrastructure, constructing bridges, interchanges, retaining walls, and paving. The Infra 2 stage will begin by selecting the franchisee group, and will include financing, construction of track and railway systems, carriage procurement, and operation and maintenance of the line over 25 years.

In January, TransIsrael announced that six groups had submitted their candidacies for participation in the tender: one group includes two Chinese companies - China Railway Construction Corporation Limited (CRCC) and China Railway Construction Company International (CRCCI) - along with Afcon and the Meir Group. A second group includes the Bombardier of Canada, COMSA and Globalvia of Spain, as well as Israel’s Lesico Group.

A third group includes Alstom of France, and the Israeli companies Electra, Minrav Holdings, and Allied. A fourth group includes six companies: Downer Group of Australia, Texmaco Rail & Engineering Ltd. of India, Hitachi Rail Italy, Stadler Rail of Switzerland, and Israel’s Egged Transportation, and Housing and Construction Holding Co. (Shikun & Binui Group). A fifth group includes Shapir Engineering & Industry, Noy Energy & Infrastructure Investment Fund, and Span’s CAF, Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles. Another group combines the companies: Chinese Railway Group (CREC), and China Railway Shenyang Group Co., ATM of Italy, PESA (Pojazdy Szynowe Pesa Bydgoszcz) of Poland, and Israel’s Dan Public Transportation.

The project is led by TransIsrael’s LRT division in Israel, headed by VP Itzik Oron. Israel’s Dana Engineering and IDOM from Spain are responsible for the management, Spain’s INECO and Israel’s Yenon is in charge of planning. The Nofit LRT is one of the most important infrastructure projects in Israel today. Execution is moving ahead according to schedules. At the same time, we are promoting the franchise tender," TransIsrael CEO Dan Shenbach tells Globes.

The Eastern Railway: North to South without passing through Tel Aviv

Despite the billboards along Highway 6 and the recent TV ad campaign, many people still don’t know about the flagship project launched by Netivei Israel. Although Netivei Israel is mainly known for building 98% of intercity roads, these days, the company is allocating much of its resources to building the Eastern Railway - a new line from Pardes Hanna-Karkur in the north to Lod in the south. A large part of the new railway route will run alongside Road 6.

Due to its scope and complexity, two government companies are responsible for the project. Netivei Israel is responsible for the two 40 kilometer northern sections (up to Rosh HaAyin). Israel Railways is responsible for the 20 kilometer southern section.

To date, Netivei Israel has issued tenders for the project, with a combined value of about NIS 4 billion and, after lengthy period of planning, construction began about two years ago, including drainage, bridge construction, infrastructure repositioning, roadworks, and railway stations construction. The project will include the first railway station in an Arab town: Taibeh Station. A tender is expected to be issued shortly for construction of the Hadera East and Tira-Kochav Yair stations.

The project is being executed by Solel Boneh and Denya Cebus. Project managers are HAPAT Development and Infrastructure Company and A. Epstein and Sons. Netivei Israel states that in addition to the importance of building another line to serve more passengers, once the track is completed, for the first time in Israel’s history, there will be a railway network, and north-south traffic that will not need to pass through Tel Aviv’s crowded Ayalon corridor. There are plans for goods to be transported via this network as well, which may greatly reduce the overabundance of trucks, reducing both traffic congestion and air pollution.

Both Netivei Israel and Israel Railways expect work to be completed by 2025, after which the project will be transferred to the full management of Israel Railways, which will commence with electrification, erecting electrical poles along the entire length of the track. Following trial runs, and upon receipt of the Form 4 Certificate of Occupancy for the stations, the railway will open for commercial use in 2026.

Deputy director of the Railway Infrastructure Division at Netivei Israel, senior engineer Tzachi Gura, tells Globes, "It’s a great privilege to take part in a huge project that will, in fact, change reality for millions of Israeli citizens. This project will create a new reality that is truly Zionist, and will be written up in the history books. Beyond the fact that the project provides for thousands of families, those amazing people are part of this project feel a sense of mission. It’s thrilling for me on a personal level."

Electrification: Poles, cables and a new era

In recent years, electric poles have been positioned along the country’s railway tracks, over which power lines have been strung, thus ushering in a new era for the Israeli railway system: the age of the electric train. This has been Israel Railways’ main project in recent years, at an exceptional NIS 12 billion cost, which has made a dramatic change in all of Israel Railways’ activities.

The project entails converting 1,500 kilometers of railway infrastructure along the length and breadth of the country to electric.

Poles and cables - the Overhead Contact Network (OCS) - are just a small subset of Israel Railways’ procurement, adaptation, and operation activities that include stations construction, procurement of electric locomotives, and non-locomotive electric trains to replace the old diesel locomotives. New electrical operating facilities are also being set up, maintenance personnel training is being carried, out and an instructional system is being set up.

The project underwent disruptions that caused years of delay. The budget for the project was approved already in 2010, and in 2014, the railway electrification plan was approved as part of National Infrastructure Plan (NIP) 18.

In 2014, the electrification tenders were published, but after the names of the winners were announced, several legal petitions were filed and settled in only 2018, having caused a delay.

Last year a revised plan was approved, which significantly shortens the original schedule with the entire project scheduled to be completed in 2025.

Part of the project is already operational. For example, the first electric train line opened between Jerusalem’s Yitzhak Navon Central Station and Ben-Gurion Airport, after which the line was extended to HaHaganah Station in Tel Aviv. In May 2020, work was completed up to the Tel Aviv Savidor Central station, and in September 2020, electrification work between Jerusalem and Herzliya was completed.

By the end of 2021, electrification of the Herzliya - Petah Tikva - Ashkelon line is expected to be completed, as well as electrification of Keshet Modiin (the Modiin to Jerusalem-Yitzhak Navon line). Heading the project are Israel Railways CEO Michael Maixner, Head of Electrification Division Avi Zalman, and VP Development Ilya Volkov. Kobi Ben Sheetrit and Yariv Katz lead the project on behalf of management company WSP, with electrification led by Spanish company Grupo SEMI, Paco Arias and Shai Pinchas.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on October 13, 2021

Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2021

Tel Aviv light rail Photo: Eyal Izhar
Tel Aviv light rail Photo: Eyal Izhar
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