Hundreds of people came to watch in August 2015 when the Ma'ariv Bridge in Tel Aviv was blown up, signaling the start of work on the Red Line - the first line of the Tel Aviv metropolitan area light rail. Back then the promise was that the Red Line would begin operations in October 2021. Among those present back in 2015 was Keren Zohar, deputy CEO of NTA - Metropolitan Mass Transit System Ltd., the government organization responsible for the project.
Many eyebrows were raised when Zohar announced recently that he is leaving NTA, just eight months before the Red Line was supposed to begin operations - the starting date having been postponed to November 2021, and many infrastructure experts insist that the Red Line won't be ready to open on time.
Zohar, a 45 year old Technion civil engineering graduate has spent most of his career planning highways. In 2015, he joined NTA just before work started on the Red Line. He said, "It wasn't such a major change, especially at the beginning, because we were clearing infrastructure, making traffic arrangements, building the skeleton of the line - it was almost the same thing."
Why are you leaving just before the line begins operating?
"I've done the job. We have finished 99% of the work on all the underground stations and the line, and there is some relatively marginal finishing on a budget that amounted to almost NIS 19 billion. There is no point in continuing to be the deputy CEO of a project that is ending."
There are those who say that it is a noble step and others who say you are jumping from a ship that won't reach port on time.
"I am not running away. There is no reason for the Red Line not to open on time at the end of the year. There are lots of small reasons and battles every day against just about everybody but with the existing timetable and the excellent people here, there is no reason why the line won't start commercial operations within eight months. I will come to watch this amazing thing as a rank and file citizen."
Aren't you expected to stay in terms of responsibility as a senior figure leading the project?
"Maybe there are those who see it that way. I've been with the NTA for seven and half years and that's like 14 years at another company. We've been through everything, we've done everything and I have done practically everything that it was possible to do. What remains is the issue of checking things out, which has also begun relatively well and they also know how to do that without me."
The Ministry of Transport must help in removing obstacles
In contrast to what Zohar says, the auditing company appointed to supervise the work has warned about the slow pace of the checks and claims that at the current rate, the line won't be ready for operations, even in another 400 months.
Why are things going so slowly?
Zohar explains, "They took a linear sample of the pace of the testing but the increase in the rate of the testing is exponential. We will work three shifts a day in order to close the gap on what we planned six months to a year ago, and we will catch up in the coming months."
What other obstacles are there to opening the line?
"We are coming into a period of six months of very intensive testing and trials of 36 trains and at the same time we must obtain approvals from different bodies: the IDF Home Command, the Fire Service, the local authorities, and it's possible that there will be problems with those who issue licenses for stations and other things on the line. There are authorities with whom we have ups and downs like Bnei Brak, Ramat Gan and sometimes Bat Yam. I hope that all the mayors will cooperate by understanding the huge significance of operating the line but if not then we will need the help of the Ministry of Transport with them."
Does the ministry support you in coping with the municipalities?
"We are talking about a good ministry with good people but a limited number of people and means. The role of the ministry is not just to check the companies under it but also help with obstacles and it is very difficult for one person responsible for NTA to help with these mega projects. One person that is responsible for the NIS 50 billion Red, Green and Purple Lines, as well as the Metro, cannot cope alone."
And is there political backing against the local authorities?
"Yes but not always and not always successfully, because the authorities have the sovereignty to decide what they want."
Doesn't the Ministry of Transport have the required experience and knowhow in supporting infrastructure companies like NTA in this project?
Zohar thinks carefully before answering. "There is the desire. There is the ability in terms of their position. I don't think that everyone there has to be a civil engineering professional. They are the regulator looking from above."
But maybe what is missing is somebody to get their hands dirty rather than hovering overhead?
"Yes that is missing. This line cost nearly NIS 19 billion, which is like dozens of projects of Netivei Israel or Netivei Ayalon. The staff supposed to support the handling of it is not enough."
Chronic delays: "It's impossible to give a target date"
The auditing company warns of delays beyond the target date for operating the line in November and if that happens it won't be the first time that the project has been postponed. In 2019 the project was postponed for 13 months until November 2022 after the CEO and five VPs resigned in protest at chairman Ram Belnikov's demand for more powers.
From the experience of the Red Line, what lessons can be learned for the Metro project?
"To let Israelis lead, and if there is a shortage of manpower to buy it from abroad but not to let foreign companies take control of the tenders. Israelis are no less good than the foreigners and I haven't seen any advantage in these companies despite greater expectations but in the end I relied on the help of the Israelis. The foreign companies that present many years of experience ultimately bring here mercenaries and there work isn't better."
Even if the Red Line is launched in November, the train won't arrive on time
The light rail Red Line will run from Bat Yam in the south via Tel Aviv to Petah Tikva in the north east. According to Zohar travel time for the entire length of the line will take one hour and three minutes. He said, "But it's possible that it will take one hour 15 minutes." And despite promises of one train every three and a half minutes, the frequency when the line is operated will be different. "Matters will be decided over the next six months with the Ministry of Transport. In Jerusalem it took several years until the times matched the simulations."
The line will open full including all the stations?
"Our expectations are that yes. The station relatively behind schedule is Carlebach, which should be fully ready by June and by the opening everything required should be completed in order to open the line."
So any differences might be in the operations of the train?
"There will be a difference in the turnaround until we will succeed in operating a train that takes one hour and three minutes. We are talking about 50 junctions with priority at 70% of the traffic lights - so if somebody crosses the track with an electric scooter, the train will slow down, so the public also has to get used to it. Slowly we will reach a balance.
"The traffic lights will give priority to the train. The story here is ultimately to give priority to 400 people on two carriages rather than a car that takes up 10 meters of road for one person."
It is still unclear whether the light rail will operate initially for free as happened in Jerusalem. "It's not always good to get the public used to free travel and then cut the benefit."
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on May 4, 2022.
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