French company drops tender bid for light rail because it enters East Jerusalem

French company drops tender bid for light rail because it enters East Jerusalem

Jerusalem mayor asks Netanyahu to ban Alstom from participating in any projects nationwide after it pulls out of bid for construction of capital’s new branch

A Palestinian woman and her children wait for the light rail, in the Arab neighborhood of Shuafat in north Jerusalem. (photo credit: Sliman Khader/Flash90)
A Palestinian woman and her children wait for the light rail, in the Arab neighborhood of Shuafat in north Jerusalem. (photo credit: Sliman Khader/Flash90)

French rail transport company Alstom has withdrawn from a tender for a new light rail line in Jerusalem, apparently because the network crosses into contested East Jerusalem, the capital’s Mayor Moshe Lion said Thursday in a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asking him to prevent the company from participating in any other projects across the country.

“Refraining from competing for the new light rail line in Jerusalem for political reasons is to surrender to the oppressors of Israel and we should not lend a hand to it,” Lion wrote.

“Alstom’s surrender to pressures against the capital of Israel do not align with the interests of the country. We must not accept this. I request measures on the national level against the company and to remove from it any possibility to compete in train tenders in the country. Those who boycott Jerusalem must not participate anywhere else in the country,” he said.

Alstom provided the carriages for the existing Jerusalem light rail line. It has also submitted tenders for the light rail system under construction in Tel Aviv as well as for projects for Israel Railways.

The company said in a statement that it has been working in Israel for three decades, including in Jerusalem, and fully intends to continue working on projects in the country, the Ynet news site reported.

Alstom’s withdrawal from the light rail tender came despite French courts twice rejecting Palestinian lawsuits over the passage of trains through East Jerusalem territory.

Jerusalem mayor Moshe Lion speaks during a press conference for the 2019 Jerusalem marathon in Jerusalem on February 12, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

In 2013, a French court upheld a 2007 ruling rejecting a suit filed by the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Association France Palestine Solidarité against Veolia Transport, Alstom and Alstom Transport. Quoting international treaties about the laws of occupation, the Palestinians argued that because the trains servicing the Israeli capital also crossed into East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in 1967, the French firms were complicit in Israeli violations of international law.

Israel officially annexed East Jerusalem in 1980 and considers the entire city its capital, but the international community never recognized the move. Palestinians want the eastern part of the city as the capital of a future state.

Citipass, the company that has operated Jerusalem’s single-line light rail system for the past eight years, announced last week it was withdrawing from the race to run the capital’s expanded two-line system going forward. It notified the Finance Ministry it was withdrawing from the tender over what it called “unreasonable and disproportionate” demands made of the operator in the new tender’s conditions.

The capital’s 14-kilometer Red Line, which runs from Pisgat Ze’ev in the north to Mount Herzl in the city’s west, was Israel’s first above-ground municipal rail when it opened in 2011. When new extensions will be finished, it will run in the southwest all the way to Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital, and in the north to the Neve Yaakov neighborhood.

The new tender includes construction of 19 kilometers of new track for a second line, the Green Line, which will ultimately stretch 27 kilometers from the Hebrew University campus on Mount Scopus in the city’s north to the capital’s southernmost Gilo neighborhood.

Citipass has long been a lightning rod of criticism from passengers, drawing thousands of complaints over a dearth of ticket terminals, aggressive ticket inspectors and unfair fines. Jerusalem’s largest local paper, Kol Hair, counted 80,000 fines handed out by the company to passengers over a five-year period.

The company is also a subject of a massive NIS 250 million ($69 million) class action lawsuit alleging that its inspectors were not trained or legally authorized to hand out the fines.

Citipass said its withdrawal is unrelated to past complaints, but was due to the risks placed on the future operator of the light rail system by the new tender conditions. It pointed to a long string of security incidents, including Palestinian terror attacks and rock-throwing, as well as riots and protests in ultra-Orthodox areas, that damaged and delayed trains. The company’s contract with the state did not adequately protect it from losses incurred during such events, it told Israeli business journals in recent days.

Medics arrive at the scene of a stabbing attack on the Jerusalem light rail near IDF Square in the capital on April 14, 2017. (Magen David Adom)

Before issuing the new tender, the Finance Ministry activated its “buy-back” option in the contract with Citipass, in a bid to ensure that both the green and red lines in the capital will be run by a single operator following the new tender. The winner of the tender will be required to take over operation of the Red Line from Citipass within six months of the announcement of their win.

Three groups are believed to be planning to compete in the tender following Citipass’s withdrawal, each composed of multiple companies providing expertise in infrastructure, rail vehicle construction and maintenance, and public transportation management. Competitors hail from Israel, Spain and China, with investment firms from additional countries backing the competing coalitions. Firms from Germany, Russia, Greece and Austria are also considering bids, but have not finalized the decision, according to Hebrew media reports.

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