Days before Jerusalem Day, President Reuven Rivlin toured a section of tracks for the highly anticipated Jerusalem-Tel Aviv high-speed train, which is scheduled to open in late 2018.
The Fast Lane project, which costs an estimated NIS 7 billion ($1.8 billion) and has been in planning since 2001, is expected to cut travel time between Tel Aviv and the capital to 30 minutes, down from 78 minutes on the old line built during the days of the Ottoman Empire.
The fast trains will reach speeds of up to 160 kph (100 mph). When fully operational, they will depart every 15 minutes in each direction, carrying up to 1,000 passengers.
“This just goes to show that all roads lead to Jerusalem,” Rivlin said Wednesday during a site visit atop of a 97-meter (318-feet) high bridge over the Yitlah Stream west of Jerusalem, the highest bridge in Israel.
“As we mark another year of the uniting of Jerusalem, we are seeing now that Jerusalem is open to the whole country, and the whole country is open to Jerusalem.”
The massive public works project, however, has faced a few hurdles since the planning started 15 years ago. Originally slated to be finished in 2008, environmental activists stalled the plans after raising a number of concerns about potential damage to the protected hills and valleys surrounding the capital.
Environmental groups tried to force the planners to build a tunnel under the Yitlah Stream instead of passing over it with a bridge. The Interior Ministry’s Planning Commission decided that the tunnel would hold up the project for at least two years, and ruled in favor of Israel Railways.
The high-speed rail line also crosses the Green Line twice, once near Latrun and once near Mevasseret Zion, inviting criticism from the Israeli left and pro-Palestinian groups. A German company advising the project withdrew in the face of pressure from activists.
In September 2015, Economy Minister Aryeh Deri, the head of the Ultra-Orthodox Shas party, decided not to allow construction on Shabbat, further delaying plans by two years.
And in January 2016, part of an emergency exit tunnel collapsed, fueling a legal fight between Israel Railways and the various contractors responsible for different aspects of the construction.
Despite the delays, Fast Lane to Jerusalem director Dror Sofro said he is confident that the train will begin operations for passengers in the last quarter of 2018.
Rivlin toured the empty tunnels on June 1 to get a grasp of the sheer size of what he called “a very serious undertaking for the State of Israel.”
The longest tunnel in the Fast Lane project is 11.6 km (7.2 miles) long, making it the longest tunnel in Israel. A massive German tunnel boring machine drilled each of the tunnels, specially customized to drill in one motion at the size of the tunnel. The machine uses 24 motors to drill directly into the hard Jerusalem stone, advancing at a rate of 16 to 20 meters (50 to 65 feet) per day.
In Mevasseret Zion, the train tracks will be 200 meters (650 feet) below ground, as the suburb is perched on hilltops higher than the capital. In Jerusalem, the train station, being built near the Central Bus Station, is 80 meters (260 feet) below ground and doubles as a public bomb shelter.
Times of Israel Staff contributed to this report