Disasters drilled on Jerusalem-Ben Gurion fast rail ahead of opening in 3 weeks

Israel Railways mounts exercises to extract ‘blaze victims’ from Israel’s longest tunnel, evacuate injured from underground platform

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

View of the train and tracks during a test drive of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv high-speed train in central Israel on January 16, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
View of the train and tracks during a test drive of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv high-speed train in central Israel on January 16, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Just three weeks before the planned opening of the first section of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv fast train, emergency services on Monday began one of their biggest drills to date, simulating a response to a fire on a train deep in Israel’s longest tunnel.

The exercise, organized by Israel Railways and involving police, fire and rescue services, put all systems to the test to help determine whether safety permits can be issued for the long-awaited train to start operations on September 23.

The main challenge for rescue workers was to reach a train on fire in the middle of Tunnel 3, which is inaccessible by regular vehicles and measures an Israeli record-breaking 11.6 kilometers (7.2 miles) long.

Emergency workers, joined by around 30 firefighters, set out from Jerusalem’s Yitzhak Navon Rail Station near the main entrance to the city, and from Latrun, some 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) away. They boarded special train cars — one at each end —  equipped to operate like mobile field hospitals.

The two groups met somewhere in the tunnel’s middle.

Firefighters practiced removing passengers from the “blazing” cars to the mobile field hospitals, where the “injured” were given first aid as they were transported back to the tunnel openings at either end. From there, they were transferred to ambulances to be taken to nearby hospitals.

On Wednesday, an emergency drill is to be carried out at the Navon station to simulate an evacuation in the event of a mass terror attack on a train platform 80 meters (262 feet) underground.

When the rail opens fully, the train ride between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is expected to take less than 30 minutes.

Conceived in the 1990s, the project has suffered from multiple delays since construction began in 2009.

The official opening of the line, initially planned for the Passover festival in April, was delayed until this month because the system still lacked the necessary permits. Then last month, Transportation Minister Israel Katz was forced to announce that the train from Jerusalem would initially only reach Ben Gurion Airport.

Looking down to the ticketing area level inside Yitzhak Navon Railway Station, Jerusalem, October 27, 2017 (ToI staff)

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.

Threatening even further delay, the transportation workers union announced a labor dispute, saying it was prepared to strike unless management agreed to salary increases for drivers and special insurance policies for them and for workers.

Union leader Avi Edri cited dangers faced by train workers.

“Workers have been fatally electrocuted in other parts of the world,” he told The Times of Israel. “If we don’t reach a compromise, we will not open the line. Diesel is one thing; an electrified system works with very high voltage.”

Last month, unnamed emergency workers told the Kan public radio that September’s planned opening should 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 who is intimately familiar with the project confirmed to The Times of Israel on Monday 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.

For the service to be allowed to run to the airport during its first stage, Israel Railways needs safety and security permits from the fire service and Israel Police, both of which have been involved – along with emergency rescue services – throughout the construction phase, according to the source.

A bridge on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv fast train route, July 2017 (Gidi Avinary/Flash90)

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. Final checks can only be carried out once the railway is up and running, although it remained unclear whether passengers would already be on board.

While possibly requiring a change here or there, these checks are not expected to hold up the service, the source said.

To maximize security, the entire length of the railway will be 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.

The area between Latrun and Jerusalem will have five tunnels and several miles of bridges.

Insiders expect the section between Ben Gurion and Tel Aviv to open close to the end of the year.

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