The Jerusalem light rail.
The Jerusalem light rail. Photo by Emil Salman
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The Israeli government promised CityPass, the concessionaire of Jerusalem's light rail, that it would prevent competition from busses, but it appears this agreement is costing the public convenience.

According to the agreement, which was signed a decade ago and revealed in recent days, the government promised to prevent the operation of bus lines parallel to the train's course, thus, in effect, preventing competition that could ultimately benefit the passengers.

As far as Jerusalem residents are concerned, the agreement envisions a transport system that is radically different from reality. It determines, for example, that during rush hour, trains will arrive every five minutes and that the allowed density will be no more than four passengers per cubic meter. Nonetheless, passengers familiar with the service, which began last year, are aware that these conditions never came to fruition. The agreement allows the government to sanction and fine the company if it fails to adhere to the conditions, but no such action has, as yet, been carried out.

Originally signed in 2002, the agreement has since been updated several times, following arbitration processes between the government and CiytPass. The last change was signed last March. Still, the original contract and appendixes, consisting of several hundred pages, remains the basic binding agreement between the state and the government, regulating the establishment and operation of the Jerusalem Light Rail.

In many ways, this agreement deeply influenced the public domain in Jerusalem in the last decade, since it determined the specifications of the establishment of the train and the conditions for its operation. Despite its importance, the agreement remained protected from the public. A copy of the agreement was obtained only recently, following pressure applied by attorney Asaf Pink who represents a group of citizens that submitted a representative complaint against CityPass. The agreement is being circulated by the "15 Minutes" movement, working for the improvement of public transport in Jerusalem.

Four months ago, a new agreement was signed, easing some of the requirements from CityPass. Thus, for example, the new agreement determined that the trains would run every six minutes during rush hour, instead of every five minutes. The CityPass consortium says that it fulfills the new conditions. Attorney Pink further protested the fact that the discussions between the state and the consortium were not held in transparent arbitration processes, instead of the regular judicial system. "The agreement was hidden from the public for a long time, and now it turns out the gap between reality and the agreement, is arbitrary," said Pink.

The clause which might cause the most anger among Jerusalemites discusses "lack of competition." This clause specifies the state's commitments to prevent competition from bus lines. Since the train began operating last year, many of the city's residents protest the cancellation of the option of using busses. The transport system in Jerusalem, according to the agreement, is based on busses "feeding" the train – meaning that in many cases passengers are forced to switch between busses and the train, even when travelling to a relatively close destination.

Clause 2.1 of the agreement determines that "the transportation plan will prevent competition with the light rail." In another clause, the government commits itself to preventing such competition in the event of new bus routes. Busses are prohibited from running on a route parallel to the train for more than one kilometer, and for no longer than three consecutive stations.

Another clause stipulates that the state would be allowed to authorize a competitive bus route – in one particular area – only if the combination of bus and train would lengthen the travelling time by more than 30 percent. "We cannot understand this 30 percent time limit," says Gil Yaakov, director of "15 Minutes, "Why not allow traveling by bus in all cases when the train takes longer? The agreement promises CityPass lack of competition, and does not guarantee better service for the public."

The Transportation Ministry's response: "the only limit in the concession agreement between the government and CityPass deals with bus routes running parallel to the train route. Any other competition between busses and the train is allowed, and will be examined during future planning of routes. CityPass is still not fulfilling its commitments, but, nonetheless, there has been considerable improvement in the consortium's functioning in the past year."

The Treasury Minister, who directed the negotiations with CityPass, said that "the state of Israel's attitude concerning the concessioner is according to law and to the agreement. The state is closely monitoring the concessioner's functioning, while holding constant talks with it, and does not hesitate using available means to enforce the concessioner's commitments in this project."

CityPass consortium points a finger at the government: "This is a first project of its kind in Israel, and therefore it is only natural that changes and adjustments will take place throughout the process. Most of the needed adjustments are due to the division of authority and responsibility in this project. While the concessioner is responsible, the authority to set the process in motion and issue permits is solely in the hands of the state. Throughout the process, CityPass has been operating in accordance with the agreements with the state in all areas. Due to the delays caused by the state, a new interim agreement has been signed, determining a new frequency table, which is adhered to by CityPass. The issue of lack of competition regarding other means of transportation was defined and determined by the state when the tender was published."