Minister says he’s advancing plan to extend Tel Aviv fast train to Western Wall
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Minister says he’s advancing plan to extend Tel Aviv fast train to Western Wall

Controversial proposal would require excavating over two miles of tunnel beneath downtown Jerusalem and under the politically and historically sensitive Old City

The Western Wall, right, and the gilded Dome of the Rock, among the holiest sites for Jews and Muslims, are covered in snow,  Dec. 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)
The Western Wall, right, and the gilded Dome of the Rock, among the holiest sites for Jews and Muslims, are covered in snow, Dec. 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)

Authorities have given approval to move forward with a controversial plan to place a train station in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City and whisk tourists from Ben-Gurion Airport to the Western Wall, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s office said Monday.

In a statement, Smotrich’s office said the plan, initiated by his predecessor Israel Katz, had been hindered over the past year, without elaborating.

However, following a directive from Smotrich, the National Planning and Building Council approved a new route for the train, the Transportation Ministry said. It did not specify the details of the altered route.

The plan involves extending the high-speed Jerusalem-Tel Aviv train line to the Old City. The plan would involve constructing two underground stations and excavating over two miles (three kilometers) of tunnel beneath downtown Jerusalem and under the politically and historically sensitive Old City — a project likely to raise fierce opposition by archaeologists, religious authorities and Palestinians. The Western Wall is the holiest site where Jews are allowed to pray.

From left to right: Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Bezlale Smotrich at a campaign event in the West Bank settlement of Elkana on August 21, 2019. (Ben Dori/Flash90)

Smotrich praised the development as “historic,” adding in a statement that the new train line “is huge news for Israeli residents and the millions of tourists who come to Jerusalem.”

“We are also succeeding in promoting the Zionist and Jewish agenda,” he said.

The plan was first introduced by former transportation minister Katz in 2017, who said the Old City train station would be named after US President Donald Trump, who had recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital a month earlier.

Transportation Ministry spokesman Avner Ovadia said at the time that the project was estimated to cost more than $700 million and, if approved, would take four years to complete.

This past December, the long-awaited Jerusalem-Tel Aviv train began running at full capacity every hour for the first time, though the line only goes as far as Hagana in southern Tel Aviv and will not reach stations in the center and north of the city until later this year.

Passengers at Yitzhak Navon train station in Jerusalem. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The train opened in 2018 after years of delays, but at first only took riders between Jerusalem and Ben-Gurion airport, as the railway worked on electrifying the line all the way to Tel Aviv. Riders were forced to switch trains at the airport, adding some 20 minutes to the journey.

The train replaces a Mandate-era rail that for decades wound its way between Tel Aviv and southern Jerusalem via scenic mountain passes, taking nearly two hours to make the journey.

The original launch date for the express train was 2008, eleven years ago. It was then repeatedly delayed, to 2014, 2018 and again to 2018 and to this year. The launching of the Jerusalem-Ben Gurion line, in October 2018, was marred by countless malfunctions, delays and shutdowns.

Construction at the Jerusalem station of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv fast train, December, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
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