Jerusalem's little train that almost could
After 11 years of delays, Jerusalemites finally got their long-awaited light railway on Friday, but security concerns cast a pall on launch day.
On Friday, the first day that the Jerusalem light rail ran, everyone wanted to ride it - Orthodox and secular, Arabs and Jews, tourists and locals. The fact that it was free was also quite an incentive. "This is historic," some passengers said, smiling and snapping photos to preserve the memory. Others were less excited, only welcoming the fact that after years of infrastructure work, the train was finally serving the city's residents and not only making their lives miserable.
Nahum Cohen of Pisgat Ze'ev in north Jerusalem was nervous as he waited for the train at the outskirts of his neighborhood. Cohen said an Egged driver had recommended he get off the bus and try the train, promising him it would be faster. But Cohen, who owns a clothing store on Jaffa Road, lost his patience as the minutes ticked by. "I'm not bitter that the train is working now - I'm bitter about the 11 years that have gone by. I almost went bankrupt because of the construction," Cohen said, referring to the years of major work along downtown Jerusalem's main thoroughfare.
Ten minutes later, the train pulled in. It was only its fourth stop, but Cohen had no place to sit. Alongside him stood Vered Zakut and her three daughters, Shani,12; Bar, 11; and Gali, 5. "This is the first time they promised the train would work since the year 2000, when she was born," Zakut said, pointing to Bar. "Gali was born the second time they promised," she added.
"This is really fun. There are lots of windows and you can look at the view," Zakut said. But as the train passed through north Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods of Shuafat and Beit Hanina, their excitement turned to worry. "I'm worried, especially after yesterday," Vered Zakut said, referring to Thursday's terror attack on the road to Eilat.
Security men in protective vests stood tensely at the Shuafat station. A few Arab teens got on the train. "That's what I'm worried about. I don't know if I'll send my daughters alone. I don't even know if I'll take the train."
"Why is the sign only in Arabic?" asked a passenger, Baruch Levy, as the train slowly crossed the French Hill junction. It turned out that a malfunction in the electronic signage kept it from changing into Hebrew and English. Levy, 61, from the settlement of Beit El, had come into the city especially to take the train on its first day.
The Zakut family's enthusiasm was waning at this point. "It's crowded, the air-conditioning is not great, and there's no shade on the windows," Vered Zakut said as the train moved slowly. It still does not have the right of way at traffic lights and it is limited to 40 kilometers an hour. Near Ammunition Hill, the children sat on the floor, and ultra-Orthodox women got on with baby carriages. The crowding became unbearable. The driver had trouble closing the doors and the train was delayed at every stop.
"This is such a nightmare - the sardine train," Cohen said, adding that this ride was his first and his last, as he barely managed to squeeze off at the Jaffa Road station. Masses of people were waiting in the center-city stops; hundreds at Mahane Yehuda market alone.
At the central bus station the electronic sign began working and the crowd thinned out. Passengers sounded optimistic again. Nehama from Beit Hakerem bought a photograph for NIS 10 from a veteran Jerusalem photographer. "This has made my day," she said."
An hour and twenty minutes after it started out, the train reached its last stop at Mount Herzl. A few dozen passengers who had come along just for the ride crossed over the wait for the return train. Finally, 25 minutes later, it arrived. Once again, the crowds became insufferable, and this time the train got stuck in Shuafat. A train employee explained that the electricity was down and asked passengers to be patient. "Is the train bullet-proof?" a woman asked, only calming down five minutes later when the train started up again.
All in all, the round-trip ride had taken three hours and 15 minutes. "It will improve," a train attendant promised. "Give it a chance," he added.