Better late than never

Ayalon corridor Photo: Shutterstock

From the fourth track along the Ayalon in Tel Aviv to electrification of Israel Railways entire network, everything is behind schedule.

Last week, the National Transport Infrastructure Company (Netivei Israel) announced the beginning of work on the fourth track running parallel to the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv. It comes 20 years late, but at least something is starting to move. The track will be laid above the drainage channel that will replace the Ayalon River, and which will become a tunnel when the work is finished. In order to solve the drainage problem, water from the river will be diverted into an artificial lake on the Hiriya site. The project will also double the number of tracks between the Shapirim Interchange and the Kibbutz Galuyot Interchange from two to four, parallel to Road 1.

Work on the fourth track is scheduled to be completed in 2026 when the frequency of trains in the Ayalon corridor can be increased from 580 to 824. Increasing the frequency beyond that will also require widening the tracks in the coastal plain between Tel Aviv and Haifa, an equally difficult task.

The delay in electrification is also disrupting the supply of electric carriages ordered by Israel Railways, and is creating peculiar problems. The depot - the maintenance and storage area for the electric locomotives - was built in Ashkelon, but there is still no electric infrastructure between Tel Aviv and Ashkelon. The electric locomotives are therefore being temporarily dealt with in Lod, and must therefore be towed within the maintenance site by a diesel-powered locomotive.

Two week ago, the National Infrastructure Committee approved doubling the number of tracks between Shefayim and Haifa to four, but the small print on the decision is worth reading. The easy part of the job outside cities was approved for execution, but the part within Haifa was transferred for approval to a new inter-ministerial forum headed by the Ministry of Transport and including the Planning Administration, the Ministry of Finance, and the Haifa municipality. This forum will submit its conclusion a year from now.

The main reason for the delay is the objections by the Haifa municipality to doubling the tracks and the lack of available financing for the project.

For years, Haifa has been waging a struggle to move the track, which creates a gap between the city and coast. The municipality is also waging a campaign against the railway electrification programs, which will create an un-esthetic mess of electrical wires above the track. It was previously ruled that the track would be lowered, but doubling the number of tracks renders this solution irrelevant. In the background, construction of the new port, which will mean more trains traveling on the tracks, is progressing. Doubling the number of tracks is an opportunity to put them into a tunnel and improve access to the railway for residents of Haifa, but there is currently a dispute about the route of the track, while it is not at all clear how new tunnels in the city will be funded.

The municipality wants tunnels closer to Haifa, with some of them beneath the existing railway tracks. The trains traveling on them will stop at the existing Lev Hamifratz and Hof Hacarmel railway stations, and at two new stations in Kiryat Eliezer and the Haifa government complex. Very initial cost estimates for the tunnels vary from NIS 2 billion to NIS 4 billion, but it cannot be ruled out that more money will be required.

Another alternative proposed is tunnels underneath the Carmel hills that will make it possible to travel directly from the coastal railway tracks to the Lev Hamifratz railway station, while bypassing the city of Haifa. The municipality naturally opposes this alternative.

Haifa municipal engineer Ariel Vaterman told "Globes," "The municipality opposes the decision taken last week to split the plan into two parts: from Shefayim to Hof Hacarmel and from Hof Hacarmel to Lev Hamifratz. Splitting the plan is liable to delay implementation of the northern part of the section indefinitely, in which case the plan will not achieve its purpose.

"In such a situation, residents of Haifa and the north will have to go to the Hof Hacarmel station in order to board the high-speed train. This interim situation is impractical and will prevent achievement of the plan's goals.

"Furthermore, the freight trains from the ports in Haifa, especially the new port, which is scheduled to begin operating in 2020, will put a burden on the two existing tracks, so the system will definitely collapse, forcing residents of Haifa and the north to travel by car, thereby losing time, polluting the air, and causing loss of life."

Meanwhile, the shortage of railway tracks in Haifa is also making it difficult to park and store the trains that Israel Railways has in garages in Haifa.

On Saturdays, trains can be seen parked in the middle of closed railway stations, and not just in Haifa. The reason is a shortage of parking tracks for trains - part of the shortage of everything at Israel Railways: a shortage of railcars, platforms that are too short, and a lack of tracks everywhere. One of the main reasons for these problems is the great delay in the electrification project.

The budget for this project and its execution have already been approved, but it is being delayed by technical problems. Over half of the routes should already have been electrified, but the first electrical route between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv will be completed only in 2020. Together with the advantages of reducing pollution along the tracks and in the railway stations, electrified trains accelerate and brake faster than diesel-powered trains, which makes it possible to improve their frequency and complete journeys in less time.

On the agenda: The fifth and sixth tracks

The ambitious plan presented by Israel Railways two years ago is being portrayed as an essential part of the effort to reduce the number of cars on the roads. It brings us back to the crowded transportation corridor along the Ayalon Highway. It is clear that even the excessively-delayed fourth track will soon be inadequate. An infrastructure sector source compared it to "a person undergoing coronary bypass surgery while gobbling chips and high-cholesterol food."

There is a plan for building fifth and sixth tracks along the Ayalon Highway, but it will be far more difficult. Two alternatives are currently under consideration. One is a tunnel underneath the existing railway route at an estimated cost of NIS 35 billion, more than the combined budget for all three planned light rail lines in the greater Tel Aviv region. The other alternative is building two elevated tracks on bridges above the existing tacks. This plan is less pleasing to the eye, but is cheaper and quicker. It clashes, however, with other long-term plans, such as building a covering with a park over the busy Ayalon Highway transportation artery.

These plans are now at the statutory approval stage, with approval expected in 2021, when it will become necessary to decide which to adopt and how to budget it.

Israel Railways planning department manager Nataly Kats says, "The entire system must lend a hand to carrying out the plans. These are not meant to be shelf plans. If the planning institutions help us, we'll be able to keep to the schedule."

Kats raises an interesting point - a bottleneck could also be created in performance capacity. The state needs an appropriate number of planners, contractors, and infrastructure companies.

After all, these projects are likely to have unanticipated side effects. A decade of road development in the Ayalon Highways program increased crowding in the central region - the high-speed roads from the north and the south and the new east-west roads, such as Roads 431 and 531, only encouraged drivers to travel to the Tel Aviv region, with a negative impact on congestion.

Two mass transit systems are now being planned for the greater Tel Aviv area - a light railway network and a metro network, and the number of railway tracks along the Ayalon Highway will be doubled from three at present to six. It will be a long time before these projects are carried out, but it appears that there will again be a large supply of transportation for Tel Aviv at the expense of development of other business and leisure regions. While strategic plans are being made, it may be worthwhile to also open additional centers in Israel.

Instead of flooding the Ayalon Highway, they are flooding the park

In order to accommodate construction of the fourth railway track along the Ayalon Highway, the drainage channel that replaced the Ayalon River must be covered, which will substantially reduce its capacity. After years of arguments about how to divert the water, it was decided to establish an artificial lake in Ariel Sharon Park at the foot of the Hiriya trash heap.

The site will be used for recreation and tourism, and a dam will control the flow of water and deliver a controlled volume of water to the closed channel in the center of the Ayalon Highway. Netivei Israel transportation projects manager Gilad Zwebner explains that three reservoirs on the high part of the river, including in Nesher and Modi'in, will make it possible to control drainage and floods, if any.

Execution of the plan, which has already begun in Sharon Park, mandates the postponement of another plan - an underground pipeline between the reservoir and the Mediterranean Sea. It is believed that in the absence of such a pipeline, the Ayalon Highway will be flooded once every 35 years. It is important to stress, however, that this is a statistical calculation, and it is possible that such a flood will happen much sooner. The pipeline, which will cost NIS 1 billion according to the most optimistic estimate, will reduce the frequency of floods to once in a century. It is possible that such a pipeline will be approved only after the next time that the Ayalon Highway is flooded.

Israel Railways' development plan

Two years ago, Israel Railways presented an ambitious development plan extending until 2040. "The path is not becoming easier, but it is becoming clearer," the presentation shown to senior personnel in the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Transport states. The plan includes projects such as a railway track to Eilat and Kiryat Shmona, and railway links with the neighboring countries. Its main thrust, however, is strengthening the link between Israel's four metropolises: Haifa, Jerusalem, and Beer Sheva will all be connected to Tel Aviv. 70% of railway passengers travel to Tel Aviv.

Israel Railways hopes to increase the current annual traffic of 67.7 million railway journeys to 155 million in 2030 and 306 million a decade after that. According to this vision, the railway will become the main interurban means of transportation in Israel, with two types of trains: high-speed trains reaching a speed of 250 kilometers per hour and suburban trains with a maximum speed of 160 kilometers per hour, like the trains now in operation. This requires at least four tracks on every railway route, with separation between tracks for high-speed trains and tracks for suburban trains.

The high-speed trains will travel from Beer Sheva to Tel Aviv in 48 minutes, instead of 77 minutes at present, and from Haifa to Tel Aviv in only 35 minutes, instead of 54 minutes at present. Travel time from Eilat to Tel Aviv will be 160 minutes. Israel Railways plans to operate 50 trains at peak hours in 2020 and 140 trains in 2040.

In order to realize this vision, however, a massive development plan of tracks between the four main cities is needed. Zwebner mentions a long list of projects for promotion. Examples include an eastern railway route close to Cross Israel Highway that will make it possible to divert freight trains from the crowded coastal tracks and increase the frequency of passenger trains there; construction of new parking facilities for trains and development of additional tracks; and doubling the railway track between Dimona and Beer Sheva.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on June 19, 2019

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2019

Ayalon corridor Photo: Shutterstock
Ayalon corridor Photo: Shutterstock
Twitter Facebook Linkedin RSS Newsletters גלובס Israel Business Conference 2018