The Tel Aviv light rail Red Line has completed its first month of operations and it's time to take stock on whether it has positively impacted Israel's main metropolitan region. The first month has not been fully typical in so far it has included the second half of August, a relatively calm period when many Israelis traditionally go on vacation and the start of the holiday season in September. But we can already draw some conclusions about the line, and there are questions. Does it serve enough passengers? When will inspectors begin checking whether passengers have paid? And what is causing such slow journey times in Bat Yam?
There aren't so many breakdowns
The Red Line was supposed to begin operations in November 2022 but there were many postponements because of repeated emergency safety stops caused by the signaling system. Typically, there were 10-15 such emergency stops per day and there was concern that such abrupt braking would throw around passengers and there would be injuries. Minister of Transport Miri Regev even warned that these sudden halts could be life-threatening and the launch of the light rail was delayed.
In practice, since the opening there has been about one such emergency stop per day, and the jolting of passengers by the train is relatively weak. In addition, apart from a series of faults that stopped the train for half a day, no serious incidents have been recorded. In fact, in the first month of operations, 98% of the planned journeys were completed, and this is a surprisingly positive figure for such a complex means of transport.
Israelis have not been rushing to use the light rail
On average, about 100,000 passengers travel on the light rail every day, although it is possible that the number of passengers is slightly higher, because nobody checks if passengers have paid their fares, so there are inevitably passengers who are not paying. However, inspectors will be deployed after the holidays, and passengers caught without a ticket will have to pay a fine of NIS 180. No exit will be possible from underground stations without valid tickets.
Does the light rail adequately serve passengers' needs? While there is strong demand in Tel Aviv (50% of its passengers get off at one of the stations in the city), demand is very weak in Bat Yam (12%) and Petah Tikva (14%). Therefore, the crowding predicted before the start-up of operations has not yet happened. Operations have begun in less busy months, but even so in estimates for the opening of the line, it was believed that there would be cases during rush hours when each train would carry 600-700 passengers, even though they were ideally designed for a maximum 440 passengers.
The short operating period is not very representative of the expected light rail situation on normal days. It is important to remember that a new transport line takes time to be adopted by a larger number of passengers, who have to change their daily habits to become regular user, possibly even forgoing their car journey. It is also possible that the fear of breakdowns and disruptions still deters some passengers.
Another possible reason for the relatively low usage outside of Tel Aviv is the poor accessibility to the light rail stations. While in Tel Aviv bicycle paths, sidewalks and bus lanes have been developed, so that even those who are far from the station can reach it conveniently and quickly, such steps were not taken outside of Tel Aviv. Another reason could be the operation of a "competing" bus line, line 1, along the route, the operation of which will be discontinued within a few months.
According to estimates, demand is expected to increase in the future, when the train will be working at its full frequency in about a year (currently it is working at 60% of planned frequency). Forecasts are for 234,000 passengers per day.
Travel is slow and painful in Bat Yam
While travel in the central underground section is fast and the train even reaches about 70 km/h between certain stations, travel above ground is slow, especially in the southern section in Bat Yam and on Jaffa's Shderot Yerushalayim.
Although the journey experience can be more pleasant than on a bus that crawls through traffic and sometimes even by car, which requires negotiating congestion and jams and finding parking, the light rail is still not fast enough. The reason for this is that the Red Line route in Bat Yam has many intersections where the train has only a 70% preference at traffic lights, and further calibration of the traffic light system is still required.
A certain improvement should occur already after the holidays, but the process of calibrating the traffic lights on the train route and prioritizing it is a relatively long process that will happen gradually over the next year. This may also be a reason for the relatively low passenger usage rate of the light rail in Bat Yam.
Lower frequency and shortened operating hours
The last train departs every night at 11pm and reaches the depot at about midnight, so that night work on the tracks can be undertaken. These works will be reduced in the coming months and the operating hours will be extended so that the last train leaves at midnight. On days when there are soccer matches at Bloomfield Stadium in Jaffa, the operating hours are extended and within 20 minutes the train is able to convey 3,000 passengers. On Fridays, the hours of operation have been slightly extended to nearer the start of Shabbat, but operating hours will be shortened again as the earlier sunset in winter approaches. This has reminded the secular public of the absence of public transport on Shabbat despite being a relatively advanced transport system typical of other Western countries, on weekdays.
Frequency with the launch of the light rail is about 60% of the eventual planned frequency for the Red Line and it will increase to the planned frequency in about a year. Meanwhile, in September, journeys have been added so that in the underground section trains run every 5 minutes on average. This is only the beginning and for light rail to be effective, the frequency must increase significantly. In transport, the infrastructure dictates demand, and the more frequent the service and over longer hours, the more the demand will increase.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on September 20, 2023.
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