Opening the TLV-Jerusalem rail: From anticipation to political opportunism

There is an entry in Wikipedia called “Tel Aviv–Jerusalem railway,” which tells the story of the high-speed railway line being built right now connecting Israel’s two biggest cities.

The second sentence of that entry reads: “It has been under construction in stages since 2001.”

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Last Thursday, the prime minister and transportation minister took journalists on a photo-op inaugural run of the “King David Line,” ahead of Tuesday’s real opening for general passengers (though only with a pre-ordered voucher on a personal Rav-Kav smart-card which can be ordered through the Israel Railways website or app – and only in Hebrew. In 2018? Why?) The ride on Thursday did not go to Tel Aviv, even though it is called the “Tel Aviv–Jerusalem railway,” but to Ben-Gurion Airport, because the spur from the airport to Tel Aviv is not yet electrified.

Seventeen years.

Is this any way to run a rail line? Time after time, announcement after announcement, the Transportation Ministry has predicted an opening day, like Erev Passover last year, or But let’s be honest: the ministry really doesn’t know when the rail line will be open.

No official date has been announced regarding the opening of the King David Line, although authorities expect electrification work on the remaining Ben-Gurion Airport to Tel Aviv spur to be completed in mid-2019. Anyone wanna bet? When the project began in 2001, and following a series of managerial mistakes and delays and more delays, the rail link – Israel Railways’ flagship project – was first scheduled to be completed by 2008.

Then it was supposed to open by the end of 2017, and then by the Passover holiday in March – but safety requirements demanded by the police and fire and rescue services delayed it again until now.

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Police and fire and rescue services weren’t consulted beforehand? It is certainly normal for major infrastructure projects such as this one to take longer than scheduled.

But it is hard to believe that the problems that have plagued this rail link and delayed it by decades can happen in a developed country such as Israel.

No one is arguing that safety should be compromised.

On the contrary – take as much time as needed to make sure that every possible safety hazard is covered, every possible emergency has a contingency plan. But stop saying “We’ll be open for the next holiday.”

The price of the mammoth 57-kilometer project – which includes nine bridges and five tunnels – is an estimated NIS 7 billion, more than double its original estimate. Even still, it is a cost well worth it for the resulting benefit to the citizens of Israel: not only will the new line connect the capital with greater Tel Aviv and the center of the country; it will also help reduce traffic congestion between the cities, effectively turning Tel Aviv and Jerusalem into commuter towns for each other.

Nevertheless, turning a half-finished project into a celebratory inauguration smacks of political opportunism, coming as it does so soon before new elections.

The groundbreaking ceremony for the original Jaffa–Jerusalem railway took place on March 31, 1890, with plans calling for it to be finished by April 1, 1893. By October 1890, the first test run was conducted, an event attended by some 10,000 onlookers – more than half the population of Jaffa.

Less than two years later, on September 26, 1892, the line officially opened – six months ahead of schedule! Upon completion, that new railway line changed the face of Palestine, connecting the capital with the 18th century’s Tel Aviv, the port of Jaffa.

When this new King David Line connecting Jerusalem’s Binyanei Ha’Uma station to Tel Aviv’s Hagana station is completed – the first electric railway line in Israel – it too will completely change the relationship between Jerusalem and the rest of the country. And the best part? It will take only 28 minutes.

That is the speed we need to complete the job. Get on with it.

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