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Comptroller: Jerusalem-Tel Aviv express train won’t be ready by April 2018

Highly critical report says construction could take until December 2019, warns against shortcuts to speed up project

Construction of the Jerusalem Railway Station for the future high-speed railway line to Tel Aviv on May 15, 2012. (Miriam Alster/ FLASH90/ File)
Construction of the Jerusalem Railway Station for the future high-speed railway line to Tel Aviv on May 15, 2012. (Miriam Alster/ FLASH90/ File)

A State Comptroller’s report released Wednesday found the high-speed rail line between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, slated to begin operating in April 2018, will not be ready for another year to two years.

The highly critical report found the conversion of the trains and railway lines from diesel to electric — a project which began 20 years ago — will not be finished until December 2018, or possibly December 2019, according to an Israel Railways internal audit report cited by the comptroller.

The train line has to be converted to run on electricity, primarily because operating diesel in the long tunnels would be dangerous. This requires at least four substations, some 80 kilometers (50 miles) of electric cabling, and converting the engines from diesel to electric.

The State Comptroller criticized the Railways Authority, saying it had not stuck to the timetable it set for itself, yet kept insisting it would begin operating the line on schedule. The comptroller warned that cutting corners to finish the project by April could lessen the quality of the work, compromise safety, and lead to an overall increase in the costs of the project.

In addition, the report found that the plan to electrify all of Israel’s railway lines, which was to have been completed by 2019, will not be done until at least 2021.

The state watchdog’s report also said the Acre-Carmiel railway, which was to have been completed in 2016 and would have been the first electrified route in the country, is now unlikely to be finished before December 2021.

An aerial view of the bridge for the high-speed train between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, on July 3, 2017. (Gidi Avinary/Flash90)

Netivei Israel, the National Transport Infrastructure Company, responded to the report by saying that most of the issues had already been dealt with.

“The vast majority of the issues in the State Comptroller’s Report were dealt with and fixed, because they refer to [issues in] the years 2014 to 2016.”

The Tel Aviv-Jerusalem rail project, which is projected to cost an estimated NIS 7 billion ($1.8 billion) and has been in the works since 2001, will cut travel time down significantly from the 78-minute ride on the old line built during the days of the Ottoman Empire.

The trains will reach speeds of up to 160 kilometers per hour (100 mph). When fully operational, they will depart every 15 minutes in each direction, carrying up to 1,000 passengers each.

The massive public works project has faced many hurdles since planning started 15 years ago. Originally slated to be completed 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 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.

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 used 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 are 200 meters (650 feet) below ground, as the suburb is perched on hilltops higher than the capital. In Jerusalem, the train station, built near the Central Bus Station, is 80 meters (260 feet) below ground and doubles as a public bomb shelter.

Melanie Lidman contributed to this report.

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