Officials finally inaugurate Jerusalem-Tel Aviv fast train to ‘connect country’
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Officials finally inaugurate Jerusalem-Tel Aviv fast train to ‘connect country’

11 years overdue and after countless setbacks and malfunctions, regular service on bridge-and-tunnel railway set to begin on Saturday night

A section of the high speed Jerusalem-Tel Aviv train line on the outskirts of Jerusalem, on September 25, 2018. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
A section of the high speed Jerusalem-Tel Aviv train line on the outskirts of Jerusalem, on September 25, 2018. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Israel’s top transportation officials gathered underground in central Jerusalem on Wednesday to formally inaugurate the long-awaited Jerusalem-Tel Aviv fast train.

The direct line between Israel’s two major metropolitan centers has been under construction for 18 years, and its planned opening on Saturday night comes 11 years after its originally scheduled completion date.

“After years of hard work and struggle, Jerusalem is connecting to Tel Aviv,” said Foreign Minister Israel Katz, who as transportation minister from 2009 till earlier this year oversaw much of the construction work.

“I call this the King David track, which connects the City of David to the rest of the country. This will enormously strengthen Jerusalem and the country as a whole.”

Foreign Minister Israel Katz, left, and Transportation Minister Betzalel Smotrich at the Yitzhak Navon Train Station in central Jerusalem for the inauguration of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv fast train, December 18, 2019. (Transportation Ministry)

Current Transportation Minister Betzalel Smotrich also praised the new line’s power to unify the country.

“With all the talk of a ‘first Israel’ and a ‘second Israel,'” he began, with a reference to the public debate on economic inequality, “and the ‘state of Tel Aviv’ and the ‘state of Jerusalem,’ here we are building a bridge. With all our disagreements, we can’t allow ourselves to become divided. We will instead build new roads and new railways, because we are one people.”

The line is an engineering achievement for Israel, as the train’s speed — expected to deliver passengers from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv in about 30 minutes when it is finally fully operational — is achieved by cutting a straight line through the mountainous highlands around Jerusalem in a steady downward slope toward the coastal plain. Mountains are traversed via five long tunnels at a combined length of 38 kilometers, and valleys crossed by eight bridges stretching 7.5 kilometers, the highest of them, at over 100 meters above the ground, setting a record for Israel’s highest bridge.

The line, whose launch date has been delayed numerous times over the years, has been operating on a provisional basis from Jerusalem to Ben Gurion international airport since September 2018. Though limited to just 400 passengers per run, and despite repeated and highly publicized delays and even breakdowns, some 3 million trips were logged in the 16-month testing period.

The train will embark on its first commercial ride down the full length of its track, from Jerusalem’s Yitzhak Navon Train Station in the city center to Tel Aviv Hahagana Station, at 9:56 p.m. on Saturday, and will reach Hahagana at 10:28 p.m. after a single stop at Ben Gurion Airport. At the same time — 9:56 p.m. — the first train will leave Tel Aviv Hahagana and will reach Navon at 10:30 p.m.

Trains will also leave an hour later in both directions, and from Sunday, December 22, service will be every 30 minutes in both directions, except at night.

A partial view of the train platform at the new high-speed train station between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, at the Yitzhak Navon Railway Station in Jerusalem on September 20, 2018. (AFP/Thomas Coex)

The new line will significantly shorten the current commute between Israel’s two largest cities. However, while the ride duration cited for years for the new line has been 28 minutes, the schedule has the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv ride taking a longer 32 minutes and the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem commute taking 34 minutes (likely because it is uphill in that direction).

Authorities believe the train will reach other Tel Aviv stations and the northern suburb of Herzliya, a major tech industry hub, sometime next year.

Israel Railways last month launched twice-hourly trial runs on a daily basis — without carrying passengers — on the last leg of the run, from Ben Gurion Airport to Tel Aviv Hahagana.

One key cause of the delay in opening the last leg involved unforeseen problems in electrifying the last section of track.

The original launch date for the fast train was in 2008. It was then repeatedly delayed, to 2014, 2018 and finally to the tail end of 2019.

The project’s total cost is estimated at NIS 7-9 billion ($2-2.6 billion), about four times higher than originally planned.

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