After prolonged discussion, extending over nearly two decades in fact, the Ministry of Transport announced yesterday that work was underway on the fourth railway track along the Ayalon River. The project is being carried out through National Roads Company of Israel, which will work alongside operational tracks of Israel Railways. Adding a fourth track is vital for raising the frequency of trains on Israel Railways' busiest section, passing through Tel Aviv, through which trains will shortly run on additional routes, primarily the new line to Jerusalem. When the new track is completed, which is scheduled to happen in 2026, it will become possible to increase the frequency of trains in Tel Aviv from 14 to 26 an hour, and to reduce crowding at stations and on the trains themselves.
The need for an additional track along the Ayalon was raised at the beginning of the previous decade, and because of the narrow space left between the congested Ayalon Highway and the drainage channel, it was clear that a solution would necessitate improvement to the drainage of the Ayalon River, which once every few years overflows and floods the road and the railway tracks. In 2012, the work of planning and construction of the project was transferred from Ayalon Highways to National Roads Company of Israel, but execution was repeatedly postponed because of disputes over how it should be carried out, chiefly concerning the drainage problem. It was eventually decided to divert the Ayalon River to an artificial lake that would be dammed up in Ariel Sharon Park, to make the Ayalon channel narrower, and to construct foundation for the railway track on top of it. The cost of the project, which in 2012 was estimated at NIS 2.5 billion, has doubled to NIS 5 billion, and the completion date has been put back to 2026.
The first stage of the project is to narrow the concrete channel in which the Ayalon River flows in Tel Aviv and to divert the stream to the new lake in Ariel Sharon Park (in the area of the Hiriya former waste disposal site). The investment in this stage will be NIS 1.4 billion, with 6.2 million cubic feet of water being drained to the lake. The lake will be dammed, but in very rainy years the water will flood the park, although, according to the plan, no buildings will be affected by flooding. The plan to build an underground pipe from the lake to the Mediterranean Sea (which will cost a further NIS 1 billion) is designated for separate development, and has still not been budgeted for.
The next stage will be adding a lane to the northbound side of Road 1, after which traffic will be shifted rightwards, leaving space for constructing the rail track.
An additional platform will be built at all Tel Aviv railway stations, and a new terminal will be added at Tel Aviv Savidor Central Station. A further problem in carrying out the project will be the need for work on Saturdays, and it will occasionally be necessary to halt all train movement in Tel Aviv for days at a time.
Even four tracks will not meet the demand for trains on the Ayalon route, but adding more tracks will be even more challenging. One plan is to dig a 17-kilometer tunnel under the existing Ayalon tracks. The cost of that is estimated at NIS 35 billion.
The Haifa bottleneck
The fourth track will allow the number of trains per day to rise from 580 today to 824, and the number of annual passenger journeys to rise to 91 million. Nevertheless, the Ayalon track is but a single piece of a strategic plan, and unless the lack of track infrastructure along the coast is addressed, its effectiveness in improving service will be substantially diminished.
Apropos this point, while the state is getting a project underway to free one railway bottleneck, it has again delayed the release of the northern bottleneck, in Haifa. In a session yesterday of the National Infrastructures Committee, it was decided to advance the plan to double the coastal line between Shefayim and Haifa. Under the plan, two tracks will be added to the existing, and congested, two by 2030, for express trains, and two more will be added by 2040 between Shefayim and Netanya. The costal line bottleneck is one of the main causes of the crowding on trains between Haifa and Tel Aviv (alongside other causes, such as a shortage of rolling stock). The fact that express trains share the same line with suburban trains prevents higher frequency of train services.
The plan, however, has been divided into two. The easier part, outside of the cities, has been approved. The committee said planning processes for this part are close to completion. The most complicated part, within Haifa, has been handed over to a new inter-ministerial committee headed by the Ministry of Transport and with the participation of the Planning Administration, the Ministry of Finance, and the Haifa Municipality.
The reason for the complexity in Haifa is the decision to remove the barrier that the existing railway represents between the city and the sea (and certainly not to add more tracks to it). Doing so requires expensive tunnels to be dug. So instead of a decision being made, the project has been postponed, and the digging of the tunnels will be considerably delayed. All the while, Israel Railways will not be able to increase the frequency of trains to Haifa. Transport industry sources say that the fourth Ayalon track will not be able to improve substantially the frequency of trains without full expansion of the coastal line. The delays will simply move northwards, to the Shefayim area.
In response to the National Infrastructures Committee decision, Israel Railways said in a statement: "Israel Railways welcomes the National Infrastructures Committee's decision on advancing the project for increasing the number of tracks on the coastal line between Shefayim and Haifa. There is an overload of 120-130% or more on trains on these tracks, because of the lack of additional track on which to operate more trains."
Israel Railways stresses however that, in order to meet the goals of the strategic development plan for the railways, and to provide a response to the expected growth in passenger numbers from 67 million in 2018 to 300 million in 2040, additional tracks need to be laid in Haifa as well.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on June 4, 2019
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