Transportation Minister Israel Katz said Tuesday the much-anticipated fast train between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem would launch at the end of March, ahead of the Passover holiday.
The train will initially run once per hour on a single line, gradually increasing to six trains each hour on two tracks between the cities.
For its first three months, travel on the route will be free of charge, Hebrew media reported.
“This Passover, we will make it possible for multitudes of Jews to travel to Jerusalem,” said Katz. Passover in 2018 begins on the evening of March 30.
Katz is expected to make a test run with the newly installed electric engine next week, Hadashot news reported.
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.
When fully operational, the trains will reach speeds of up to 160 kilometers per hour (100 miles per hour), carrying up to 1,000 passengers each.
In October, the State Comptroller released a highly critical report which said that the train would not be operational for at least another year or two.
The ombudsman 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.
According to an Israel Railways internal audit report cited by the comptroller, 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.
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 and some 80 kilometers (50 miles) of electric cabling.
At the time, 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.
In late December, Katz announced another plan, currently in the initial planning stage, to extend the upcoming 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.
Katz said the station nearest the Western Wall would be named after US President Donald Trump, who on December 6, 2017, recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and vowed to move the US embassy to the city.