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Reporter's notebook'No idea' when full route will open -- Israel Railways

After long wait, Jerusalem-Tel Aviv fast rail finally almost nearly arrives

Netanyahu, transportation minister inaugurate ‘King David Line’ from Jerusalem to Ben Gurion Airport; officials refuse to commit to date for completion of airport-Tel Aviv stretch

Sue Surkes

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyanu (r) and Transportation and Information Minister Yisrael Katz ride the inaugural high-speed train from Jerusalem to Ben Gurion airport on September 20, 2018. (Amos Ben-Gershom / GPO)
    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyanu (r) and Transportation and Information Minister Yisrael Katz ride the inaugural high-speed train from Jerusalem to Ben Gurion airport on September 20, 2018. (Amos Ben-Gershom / GPO)
  • Escalators at Jerusalems Yitzhak Navon Station. September 20, 2018. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel.)
    Escalators at Jerusalems Yitzhak Navon Station. September 20, 2018. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel.)
  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (r) and Transportation and Intelligence Minister Israel Katz speak at the official opening of the Jerusalem Yitzhak Navon Station for the high-speed train to Tel Aviv on September 20, 2018. (Sue Surkes/ Times of Israel)
    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (r) and Transportation and Intelligence Minister Israel Katz speak at the official opening of the Jerusalem Yitzhak Navon Station for the high-speed train to Tel Aviv on September 20, 2018. (Sue Surkes/ Times of Israel)
  • A partial view of the train platform at the new high-speed train station between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, at the Yitzhak Navon Railway Station in Jerusalem on September 20, 2018. (AFP / THOMAS COEX)
    A partial view of the train platform at the new high-speed train station between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, at the Yitzhak Navon Railway Station in Jerusalem on September 20, 2018. (AFP / THOMAS COEX)
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) stands on an escalator next to Israel's Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz as they visit the new high-speed train between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, at the Yitzhak Navon Railway Station in Jerusalem on September 20, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX)
    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) stands on an escalator next to Israel's Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz as they visit the new high-speed train between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, at the Yitzhak Navon Railway Station in Jerusalem on September 20, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX)
  • A view of the Route 1 highway from the new Jerusalem to Ben Gurion Airport fast railway line, September 20, 2018. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
    A view of the Route 1 highway from the new Jerusalem to Ben Gurion Airport fast railway line, September 20, 2018. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

It was, said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Transportation Minister Israel Katz, a “historic moment.”

That was just before the two boarded the train at the new Yitzhak Navon Station in Jerusalem on Thursday to inaugurate the fast line from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv — henceforth to be known as the King David Line.

Only, because of delays in electrifying the rail track from Ben Gurion Airport to Tel Aviv, the journey only went as far as the airport.

Planners evidently miscalculated the time it would take to complete construction of the tracks in Tel Aviv, which – unlike those between the airport and Jerusalem – follow a railway route that is already in use, meaning that work has been limited to nighttime so as to avoid disruption to travelers.

The train, which is supposed to link Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in under half an hour, has been long awaited by travelers who until now have had only a slow rail ride that meandered through the Jerusalem hills on an old Ottoman-era track and took over an hour.

Even the shortened maiden voyage was five months late — opening day was originally scheduled for the Passover holiday in April. And that’s not even to mention the original estimated completion date, which passed years ago.

After Thursday’s voyage, nobody was willing to commit to a date for the opening of the full line to Tel Aviv — not even Katz.

He told The Times of Israel that he hoped the stretch to the first of Tel Aviv’s stations — Haganah — would be completed in around two months, but could not give a timetable for further stops beyond that.

“No idea,” was the response of an Israel Railways spokesman.

When it finally does open, the journey between Israel’s center of government and its center of finance will take just under half an hour.

Up to four trains will run each hour, in both directions, (depending on time of day), traveling at up to 160 kilometers (100 miles) per hour.

Meanwhile, with an initial two trains per hour in each direction, able to carry 20,000 passengers a day, the 25-minute route to the airport will open to the public on Tuesday.

Those wishing to embark will have to register beforehand online. Until when? Who knows?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) stands on an escalator next to Israel’s Transportation and Intelligence Minister Israel Katz as they visit the new high-speed train between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, at the Yitzhak Navon Railway Station in Jerusalem on September 20, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX)

Travelers wanting to continue on to Tel Aviv will have to change at the airport from the new electric locomotive system to the old diesel-powered one.

Taking into account that transfer, as well as the 10 minutes it takes to get from the surface entrance to the massive stone and granite station in Jerusalem down to the platform via three escalators and some stairs, the trip to Hashalom Station in central Tel Aviv will now take around 45 minutes.

One set of three escalators that will take passengers from the entrance to Jerusalem’s new Yitzhak Navon Station down to the platforms 80 meters 260 feet) below ground. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Jerusalem’s platforms — like those of the famous underground stations in Moscow — are located 80 meters (260 feet) below ground, making them among the five deepest in the world.

There is a Wi-fi connection down there, but it is shaky.

The journey to this historic day was anything but fast — Thursday’s train even left 28 minutes late.

The project was conceived in 2001, at an estimated cost of around NIS 3.5 billion ($978 million).

Works began in 2005, only to be halted by environmentalist opposition until 2009.

Tunneling recommenced in 2012.

The final cost amounts to around NIS 6.5 billion ($1.8 billion).

The hilly section from Jerusalem to Latrun has five tunnels and several miles of bridges, which afford dramatic views of the Jerusalem hills.

A view of the Route 1 highway from the new Jerusalem to Ben Gurion Airport fast railway line, September 20, 2018. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Thursday’s maiden voyage had a question mark over it until the last minute.

Transportation workers announced a labor dispute to campaign for salary increases for the new trains’ drivers and special insurance policies for them and for workers.

On Sunday and Monday, dozens of train drivers called in “sick.”

But on Tuesday, they went back to work after the national Histadrut labor union brokered a deal that will see Israel Railways employees and management sitting down for negotiations next month, according to Channel 10.

Last month, unnamed emergency workers told the Kan public radio that September’s planned opening would have to be postponed because the Transportation Authority had failed to lay an important concrete foundation under the tracks and had not ordered the necessary safety vehicles and equipment to respond to a major train accident, especially in a tunnel.

A well-placed independent source familiar with the project confirmed to The Times of Israel earlier this month that there had indeed been issues that should have been addressed during planning, but said that Israel Railways had since bought new firefighting equipment and that all disagreements over infrastructure had since been resolved.

The high-speed railway was built to the highest European standards from the start, and “nobody has tried to save money or cut corners,” the source said.

Emergency drills were carried out earlier in the month.

Because this is the first electric line in the country, and no local standards exist for it, the Israel Standards Institute has brought in its German counterpart, TUV, whose employees have been inspecting elements of the system. Two final checks, which can only be carried out once the railway is up and running, were slated for Thursday and for early next week.

Escalators at Jerusalem’s Yitzhak Navon Station. September 20, 2018. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel.)

While possibly requiring some tweaks, these checks were not expected to hold up the service, the source said.

To maximize security, the entire length of the railway is fenced and monitored with CCTV and other devices. Every worker requires security clearance to enter the site.

In case of potential accident or attack, escape routes have been built every 250 meters (820 feet) along the tunnels and the bridges.

In the tunnels, fire doors lead to a sterile area which takes passengers into a safe part of the parallel tunnel. High aboveground, there are connecting walkways to take evacuees from one bridge to the one parallel, as well as well-signposted escape routes to the end of each bridge.

Israel Railways is currently building a branch that will connect the new fast rail link to the city of Modiin, between Jerusalem and the airport, via the Paatei Modiin station.

Katz has said he wants to extend the line inside Jerusalem to the Old City and to name the final stop for US President Donald Trump.

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