Jerusalem rail-link will be unreliable for some time

Tel Aviv - Jerusalem train Photo: PR

Temporary transformers are causing electrical fluctuations. Permanent equipment won't be deployed before February 2019.

Israel Railways' nightmare came true on Monday when 150 passengers on the new fast rail-link to Jerusalem were stuck for more than two hours in one of the tunnels. Following an initial investigation, Israel Railways told the media that the failure was caused by a component called a pantograph - the part that connects the locomotive to the high-tension line providing electricity to the train. According to information obtained by "Globes," however, the malfunction was more serious than reported: the pantograph stopped functioning because the supply of electricity was fluctuating, causing the locomotive's main switch to shut down.

Electricity is currently supplied to locomotives through temporary transformer stations, because the regular stations are not ready yet. The temporary stations are incapable of supplying the same electricity continuously and evenly as provided by permanent stations. As reported by "Globes," launching the high-speed route with temporary transformer stations incurs the risk of electricity supply disruptions like the one on Monday. Israel Railways is still claiming that the locomotive component was responsible, but added in response to a question from "Globes" that its investigation had not yet been completed.

The information obtained by "Globes" indicates that irregular electrical fluctuations were recorded on Sunday and Monday, reaching a peak at 6:00 PM, when the locomotive's main switch protecting the system against such fluctuations shut down.

The problem is that replacing the part that stopped working is not enough to really overcome this problem; a regular supply of electricity is necessary. It is believed Israel Electric Corporation (IEC) (TASE: ELEC.B22) will connect the regular transformer stations only in February-March 2019. This means that malfunctions on the high-speed route to Jerusalem will continue, trains will continue getting stuck, and Israel Railways will go on shutting down the high-speed route in order to deal with infrastructure problems.

Even worse, information obtained by "Globes" indicates that the problem of electrical fluctuations at the temporary transformer stations was discovered when tests were conducted, but under growing pressure to finish the project on the date set by the minister of transport, the route was launched while its supply of electricity did not allow proper continuous functioning of the electrified railway engines.

Furthermore, as a result of the malfunctions that have occurred on the high-speed route to date, Israel Railways rolling stock, which already suffers from an equipment shortage, has been damaged. As reported by "Globes," this shortage has caused cutbacks in scheduled trains on Israel Railways' coastal routes, leading to crowding, unbearable travel conditions, and significant delays in timetables.

A senior transportation sector engineering source says, "This electrical fluctuation problem is worse than the pantograph problem. A pantograph malfunction sounds completely illogical to me. The locomotive is a new one that passed all the test runs; such a problem should not exist. The pantograph is part of the locomotive. I've only seen one pantograph malfunction, and that happened because of electricity supply problems. I was therefore surprised to hear that a pantograph was involved. An electrical malfunction makes sense, because the entire system is unready. They papered over a lot of cracks in order to start this route on time. Israel Railways was paralyzed by fear of telling the minister of transport that we weren't ready, but how can a self-respecting country begin operating a route when only half of the work has been done?"

Does continued operation of the high-speed route endanger the public? 150 passengers were successfully rescued on Monday by connecting the train to a diesel locomotive to save the situation, connecting it from the other side of the train, and dragging it back to Ben Gurion Airport. Since the equipment involved is new and the systems are advanced and equipped with electrical switches, it cannot be said that lives are in jeopardy. A trip that should take 20 minutes and winds up taking three hours, as happened on Monday, is unreasonable, however, probably even in the test run stage.

In defense of Israel Railways, it should be pointed out that the route is new and the first of its type in Israel. Traveling on it is free for Rav Kav holders registering in advance by Internet, but it should also be said that operating an electrified route with temporary transformers is not a common sight in today's world.

Political interests and timetables

There is nothing new about Minister of Transport Yisrael Katz applying heavy pressure to finish projects by the dates he promised. In many cases, this pressure is successful in expediting infrastructure projects in which delays are common. In this case, however, political interests involved here are causing a project that was not completely finished to be opened for use by passengers. Many professional sources in the transportation industry believe that many more months of work should have been done in order to complete all of the work on the route.

"Globes" revealed in March 2018 that work on the regular transformer stations was not meeting the planned timetable for launching the route. In order to supply the need for transformers, Israel Railways ordered two mobile transformers at a cost of tens of millions of shekels but these are incapable of suppling the same degree of reliability in electrical current as regular transformer station, resulting in increased risk of electrical stoppages.

Another result of launching the route under time pressure is failure to complete construction of the garage in Lod for working on trains, resulting in the improvisations currently performed in order to carry out daily maintenance work. The garage is now working on electrical generators; it has not been connected to the electrical grid. The railway section connecting the garage to the high-speed route has not been electrified, so every time an electrified train is brought back from the garage in Lod after maintenance work has been done on it, a diesel locomotive has to drag it on the non-electrified section.

Bringing another locomotive just to drag an electrified locomotive aggravates Israel Railways' equipment, thereby causing crowding and delays on other routes. One senior source working on the high-speed project says that such a project should have begun with the garage in order to guarantee safety, but under pressure to complete the project in the allotted time, the garage was left until the end.

Israel Railways' worst scenario involves a possible exit from the project by SEMI, the performance contractor, a possibility that has been raised a number of times. Following the delays in launching the route, Israel Railways imposed heavy fines on SEMI, something that is liable to put the company into a tailspin. According to one source, Israel Railways is currently how to make things easier for the contractor and reduce the amount of the fines. If SEMI nevertheless gives up, the entire electrification project will be delayed for many years, because new tenders will have to be published, something that is liable to take years.

One of the world's five deepest stations

Is the entire media ruckus about the high-speed route exaggerated? Malfunctions frequently occur, especially in trains when equipment on them has been worn out by prolonged use. Just this Monday, the international media reported malfunctions on a Eurostar train traveling from London to Paris. Getting stuck on a train like this can be a very unpleasant experience, given the lengths of the tunnels through which it travels. In the case of the high-speed Jerusalem route, however, the equipment is completely new in most cases. Four malfunctions in one week justify the current public scandal.

The high-speed Tel-Aviv-Jerusalem train was launched for the public only a month ago. It was designed to make the travel time between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem only 29 minutes, starting before the Sukkot holiday. The route opened at the time announced by the minister of transport, but only between Jerusalem and Ben Gurion Airport, because infrastructure work on the section between Ben Gurion Airport and the Tel Aviv Hagana railway station was not completed.

Since the route was launched, its passengers have experienced no fewer than four malfunctions: some, like the one on Monday, relating to the electrification infrastructure, and others caused by infrastructure passing near the route, such as the water pipe in one of the nearby communities. The original opening date for the high-speed route, regarded as Israel Railways' flagship project at present, was originally postponed from late 2017 until before the 2018 Passover holiday. At the last minute, Israel Railways announced a further six-month postponement because of safety requirements by Israel Police and rescue forces. As revealed by "Globes," however, the engineering work done under inspection by Israel Railways were also far from completion.

The cost of the high-speed route to Jerusalem, the Ministry of Transport's biggest project, is estimated at NIS 7 billion. The route is designed to connect Israel's capital to the Greater Metropolitan Tel Aviv area and relieve traffic congestion.

The Yitzhak Navon railway station in Jerusalem was built at a depth of 80 meters below the surface, making it one of the world's five deepest railway stations. The project officially began in 2001, but was put off from 2008 to 2017 following a series of managerial mishaps. The route is 57 kilometers long, include 32 kilometers of new track from Kfar Daniel to Jerusalem.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on October 17, 2018

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2018

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