Jerusalem - Tel Aviv fast rail link finally begins operations

Israel Railways Photo: Shutterstock

After years of planning and construction, high-speed electrified trains are now running between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The journey takes 32 minutes.

The new high-speed electrified railway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv was inaugurated on Saturday night, Walla! reports. Up until now, passengers traveling between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv had to change trains at Ben Gurion Airport. The train from Jerusalem will now continue to the Hagana railway station in Tel Aviv, and the route will soon be extended to the Savidor Central Tel Aviv railway station. Travel time on the new route is 30 minutes, compared with 90 minutes on the old Jerusalem-Tel Aviv railway line winding through the Judean hills, which included a change of train in Beit Shemesh.

In order to maintain high speed throughout the new 56-kilometer route, tunnels and bridges have been used for over half of the route, including an 11.6-kilometer tunnel, the longest in Israel; a 1.25-kilometer bridge, the longest in Israel; and a 90-meter high bridge, the highest bridge in Israel. The Yitzhak Navon railway station in Jerusalem is 80-meters underground, making it the deepest railway station in Israel, and one of the deepest railway stations in the world.

The official cost of the route is NIS 6.9 billion, but other estimates are as high as NIS 9 billion. Operation of the old line is continuing, mainly in order to serve passengers in Beit Shemesh and for cargo trains.

The first train on the new route from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv left at 9:56 PM last night, after a running-in period of several weeks and a ceremonial trip on Wednesday by invitation only with Minister of Transport Bezalel Smotrich and Minister of Foreign Affairs and former Minister of Transport Yisrael Katz. Since being inaugurated in September 2018, the high-speed train between Ben Gurion airport and Jerusalem has made over three million trips, with a daily average of 10,000 passengers. Two trains an hour currently travel in each direction, with the number of passengers limited to 400 on each trip. In the coming months, when electrification work on the Ayalon track is completed, this restriction will be gradually eliminated, and the number of possible passengers on the line will rise to 1,000.

"The railway link between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv will enable more passengers to leave their cars at home and avoid the traffic jams on the way to work, studies, or vacation," says Shimrit Nothman, CEO of 15 Minutes, a passenger advocacy organization for better public transportation. She adds, "Electrification and construction of the route exacted a heavy price from Israel Railways and its passengers, and we hope that now that this important stage has ended, Israel Railways' management can divert resources to make service on all railway routes more punctual and pleasant."

At a press conference on Wednesday, Smotrich thanked his predecessor, Yisrael Katz, the management of the Ministry of Transport and Israel Railways, for their vision and foresight in building the high-speed train to Jerusalem. "This is a morning of great excitement. At a time when people speak of social gaps and the state of Tel Aviv versus the state of Jerusalem, we're building a bridge," he said. "With all of the disputes, no rift can be created. We'll build roads and railways, because we’re one people," Smotrich added.

Katz said that it was a holiday for him. "After years of hard work and struggle, Jerusalem is being connected to Tel Aviv," he said. "This is enormously important to strengthening Jerusalem and strengthening Israel. This is how the land is built, just like in 1948," he added. Israel Railways CEO Michael Maixner said that the new route was an important achievement for Israel Railways and a lever for its development plans, "including replacement of the diesel-powered fleet with modern trains powered by environmentally friendly energy."

The trains make their way between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in just 32-34 minutes, a little longer than the 28 minutes promised for the ride, with one stop at Ben Gurion Airport. Two trains an hour will run in each direction from Sunday to Thursday, from 6:20 AM until 9:30 PM. One train an hour will run in each direction on Saturday nights from 9:56 PM until midnight. Later, the frequency of trains at peak hours will be increased to four in each direction, with the route being capable of handing up to six trains an hour in each direction if demand makes it necessary.

"This route will become popular when people realize its major advantages in traveling between Israel's two biggest cities over any other mode of transportation," a Ministry of Transport source familiar with the new route's birth pangs said. "Demand for the route will rise steadily, and it will become one of the most popular routes in Israel Railways' schedule, if not the most popular of all. It is changing the situation of people working in Jerusalem and living in Tel Aviv, and vice versa.

"It creates a new situation for somebody who has to get from the greater Tel Aviv area to a meeting at a government ministry in Jerusalem, and for people living in Jerusalem going to see a play in Tel Aviv, eating dinner after the play, and taking a midnight train back to Jerusalem. They'll be back in central Jerusalem 30 minutes later. This is the most efficient and fastest way, with no traffic jams, wear and tear on cars, from one city center to another, with each of the departure stops being close to  urban public transport. The contrast with the situation up until now is like night and day."

The planners of the route waited 18 years for it to open, since it was decided in 2001 to simultaneously renovate the old route and build the new one, which was more expensive and difficult to accomplish, but gives passengers the best service. Some people date the waiting period to 1979, when the frequency of the route between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv was reduced to one train a day in each direction.

After it was decided to build the new route, there were many years of delays, with the project's budget growing three-fold from the original NIS 2 billion. A prolonged dispute of many years with environmental organizations, mainly due to the route in the area of Nahal Yitleh, caused further delay. There were also political issues that affected parts of the route going beyond the Green Line, repairs needed on service tunnels dug, and difficulties in obtaining a license from the police and Israel Fire and Rescue Services. Various operational difficulties also had an effect in unexpected places. For example, the assigning of coaches and locomotives to the new route from Israel Railways' general fleet caused unbearable congestion and cancelation of trains in northern Israel, resulting in great anger and frustration among passengers.

"Had Katz not launched the running-in period when he did, we wouldn't be ready now, either," a senior Israel Railways source said. "The fact is that there are almost no malfunctions now, and the ones that do occur are more mechanical. It's no different than any other route in the world on this scale," he added. "The media played a big role in what was perceived by the public as a catastrophe. It magnified it into disproportionate coverage." He explained that it was planned to later extend the route into Jerusalem to the Old City, the Temple Mount, and the Western Wall. The electrified train is also slated to continue to Herzliya in the future. "In any case, the enormous main part of the engineering project is behind us," he concluded.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on December 22, 2019

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

Israel Railways Photo: Shutterstock
Israel Railways Photo: Shutterstock
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