Israel's electric trains running nine years late

Tel Aviv - Jerusalem train Photo: PR

Israel Railways was supposed to go electric by 2021. Now they say it will happen by 2030.

There is an electronic message board at the Hashalom railway station in Tel Aviv warning about air pollution and recommending that children, pregnant women, and sick people go the platform only just before the train arrives. This severe problem will be solved when Israel Railways switches from diesel to electric locomotion. When will that happen? The electrification project, Israel Railways' leading project in the past decade, costing billions of shekels, is sunk deep in quicksand. No one at Israel Railways is willing to run the risk of predicting when it will be completed. The only thing that can be said is that the project is already nine years behind the original schedule.

The immediate result of the delay in the project will be felt soon by the state and the railway passengers. In the coming weeks, the state will publish a tender for the purchase of hundreds of carriages for billions of shekels. This tender was not planned at all, but it is needed in order to enable Israel Railways to provide service during the interim period before completion of the electrified tracks. Beyond the financial damage to the state, the public will also suffer from at least nine years of poor service, unbearable congestion, and slow, noisy, and polluting trains.

Israel Railways is currently holding talks with Semi, the Spanish company that won a tender in 2015 to set up the electrification infrastructure for Israel Railways, but which has not yet begun electrification, except for the high-speed line to Jerusalem. Two possibilities are under discussion: termination of the contract with the company, which means almost restarting the project from scratch, or continuing work with Semi on a reduced format, while transferring large parts of the project to other contractors. It is clear to Israel Railways that any decision will result in additional delays in the project, which was supposed to be completed in 2021. According to the latest projections by the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Finance, the electrification project will not be completed before 2030. At this stage, no official source dares to give a figure for the cost of the delay for Israel Railways, the public, and the economy. Because of the delay in construction, the likely cancellation of the tender (to be followed by a new tender), and the revisions that Israel Railways will have to make as a result of the process, the projected loss will amount to many billions of shekels.

Israel Railways' problems give rise to some tough questions. Why was it decided to give such an important and difficult project to a single contractor previously unknown in Israel, which was selected only because it made the lowest bid? Why did Israel Railways assign tasks to the contractor that it was clearly unable to accomplish, such as coordination with the authorities and various parties in Israel? What should be done now? Should Israel cut its losses and fire the contractor from the project, or continue with it, even though it has performed so badly to date, in order to avoid further delay and payment of huge compensation?

The electrification project was designed to move Israel Railways from the diesel era into the electrification era. In addition to reducing pollution and noise, electric propulsion will also improve railway operations. Trains with electric propulsion can accelerate and brake more quickly and travel at higher speeds, and can also be longer. For example, one electrically powered locomotive can pull 14 two-storey carriages, twice as many as Israel Railways' locomotives currently pull.

In other words, an electrified railway is faster and has a greater capacity than a diesel train, which will relieve the current congestion. Electrified trains are simpler and easier to maintain, but operating them requires a connection to a network of electric feeder lines and transformer stations. According to Israel Railways' figures, replacing diesel trains with electric trains will increase the average railway speed from 33.6 kilometers per hour at present to 50 kilometers an hour, thereby cutting the travel time from the Tel Aviv University railway station to the western Rishon Lezion station from 28 minutes to 20 minutes, a 30% decrease. Electrification of the tracks along the Ayalon Highway will enable Israel Railways to carry three million more passengers a year, reduce the number of malfunctions by 30%, reduce noise at railway stations by six decibels, save 60 million liters of expensive fuel a year, take thousands of tankers supplying railway fuel off the road, and reduce emissions of pollutants hazardous to people's health emitted by diesel burning locomotives by 95% or more.

The engineering complexity and cost of the project are greater than anything that Israel Railways has ever done before. Among other things, the project requires the replacement of all rolling stock by electrified carriages and locomotives, building garages and a new maintenance system for working on the electrified rolling stock, training professional personnel to operate and maintain the electrical equipment, and adapt the communications and signaling system to electrical operations. The biggest challenge is the electrification infrastructure: deploying a network of electric feed lines along 420 kilometers of active railway tracks. This work can be done only during part of the night hours or on weekends, and on one track each time, while restricting railway traffic to the other track.

How we came this far

Israel Railways' board of directors took the original decision to begin the electrification project in June 2001. The first attempt was so unsuccessful and amateurish that in 2008, seven years later, the Ministry of Finance decided to cancel the tenders and start the entire project over again.

In 2010, the electrification project was brought back to life in the framework of the National Transport Infrastructure (Netivei Israel) project initiated by Minister of Transport Yisrael Katz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In view of Israel Railways' failure in other projects, such as the high-speed railway to Jerusalem, Katz tried to take management of the electrification project away from Israel Railways and give it to Netivei Israel (formerly the Public Works Department), but then-Israel Railways chairperson Ori Yogev managed to thwart this maneuver. Israel Railways formed an electrification administration, and the government approved an NIS 11.2 billion budget for buying the necessary electric carriages and locomotives and infrastructure work. According to an Israel Railways report published yesterday, NIS 2.8 billion of this budget, 25%, has been spent so far. Israel Railways is planning to spend only NIS 158 million of a total NIS 4.185 billion budget this year on the sub-project of preparing the electrification infrastructure. In other words, in 2019, which was to have a peak year in the railway track electrification project, only 3.7% of the project will be carried out.

The electrification infrastructure tender was published in 2013. Israel Electric Corporation (IEC) was barred from taking part for antitrust reasons. Spanish company Semi won the tender with a bid of NIS 2 billion for the entire project, NIS 1 billion less than Israel Railways' internal estimate. Semi has vast experience in railway projects in Spain, but never operated in Israel before, and had no local representation. The company undertook to lay railway electrification infrastructure along more than 420 kilometers of track on 13 railway lines, erect 14 transformer stations, add an electric feeder system to Israel Railways' garages, and plan and build a command and control system for NIS 2 billion, out of a total budget of NIS 12 billion. Furthermore, in a step indicating lack of thought at Israel Railways, not to mention irresponsibility, Semi was given the task of obtaining all of the approvals and coordination necessary for the work from the various parties in Israel, even though the company had never operated here before and was totally unfamiliar with the situation in Israel.

Delays in the project began almost immediately, when the two companies that lost to Semi in the tender, Alstom and Afcon, filed a court petition. The District Court dismissed the petitions but the Supreme Court granted the two companies' appeal, and ordered Israel Railways to compromise with them. Under the compromise agreement, the two companies were given work as subcontractors amounting to NIS 580 million. It then emerged that Semi was working much slower than expected. At this stage, electrification infrastructure for five lines should already have been completed, but only one line, from Herzliya to Jerusalem, was actually finished. Trains from Jerusalem will reach the Hagana station in Tel Aviv directly only this year, without their passengers having to switch trains at Ben Gurion Airport as currently.

Semi does not bear sole responsibility for the slow pace of the work. The extreme crowding on the railway tracks along the Ayalon Highway also hampered the work. According to a source close to the project, the company could work above the tracks only four or five hours a night. Israel Railways failed to provide Semi with the work times stipulated in the contract. Furthermore, work takes place in turns, meaning on one track at a time, not simultaneously, in order to limit the disruption to railway passenger traffic. In the past two months, sanctions by workers at Israel Railways have been added to the pot, disrupting the work, and sometimes even preventing it. When the slow pace of Semi's work is added to all of this, it is easy to understand why the electrification projects is progressing so slowly. Sources close to the project believe that the worst and most difficult part of the work has already been finished. Once electrification of the heavily used Ayalon tracks is completed, it will be easier to convert less congested tracks to electricity, such as the line from Ashkelon to Tel Aviv and Binyamina and the linek from Hod Hasharon to Tel Aviv. The reinforcements for the bridges have already been built.

Israel Railways said in response, "The plan for the transition to electric power is being carried out with determination and purpose, despite many delays caused by court petitions. The work of electrifying an active track requires a temporary halt in service on some of the lines, and we are making a great effort and devoting much thought to making progress in the project as fast as possible, with as little damage to service as possible. In any project, especially one on this scale, both in Israel and elsewhere, there are major challenges and challenges that emerge. These are being handled with determination, and will be solved. At this stage, Israel Railways is completing electrification from the south to the Tel Aviv Hagana station, and the direct line from Jerusalem to the station will be opened during 2019. The other lines will be electrified in the ensuing years."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on March 28, 2019

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

Tel Aviv - Jerusalem train Photo: PR
Tel Aviv - Jerusalem train Photo: PR
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