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Years before the project got underway, the express rail line from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv was the focus of attention of various government ministries and transportation bodies. Ever since the old line stopped operating in 1997, government ministries have sought a solution that would provide rapid public transportation from Tel Aviv to the capital and address the problem of the heavy traffic clogging the entrance to Jerusalem from the west, primarily in the mornings and afternoons.

But along with the almost sweeping consensus among the government ministries with regard to the importance of building an express rail connection, there were quite a few voices calling into question the feasibility of constructing such a line: Many government and Jerusalem Municipality officials repeatedly maintained that it would be expensive, winding and too complex, and as such, could not be built. It would be better to upgrade the existing rail line, they argued.

The final decision about constructing the line came in August 2001, when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stepped in to settle the dispute between the treasury and the Transportation Ministry. Sharon accepted the recommendation of then transportation minister Ephraim Sneh to immediately upgrade the existing line and operate it, while simultaneously promoting a new high-speed line via Ben-Gurion International Airport and Modi'in.

Transportation Ministry officials now say that contrary to pessimistic predictions, the high-speed line project has gained momentum. According to the officials, the initial target date set for its completion was early 2009; but following a directive from Transportation Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the date has been moved up to 2008.

The express line, 56 kilometers long, will run via Ben-Gurion International Airport and Modi'in and through to the International Convention Center (Binyanei Ha'uma) at the entrance to Jerusalem. The trip from the Hahagana station in Tel Aviv to the ICC will take 28 minutes. The line will have a double track running for 40 kilometers from the Ben-Gurion station to Jerusalem.

A spokesman for the Transportation Ministry said travel time from Ben-Gurion to Jerusalem would be a mere 18 minutes and that the line would have four trains running in each direction every hour. Once the line is fully operational, it is expected to carry around six million passengers annually. The train's maximum speed will be 160 kilometers an hour. The route will feature several tunnels, with a total length of around 20 kilometers, and several bridges, with an aggregate length of five kilometers.

In the area around Jerusalem, the rail line will run at a depth of 80 meters underground and passengers will enter the station via high-speed elevators that take them to the upper level of the station, near Binyanei Ha'uma. The cost of building the station is estimated at around NIS 200 million because this will be a very intricate complex. The tender should be issued in early 2005 after completion of the planning procedures.

The Jerusalem station is to be built between Jaffa Road and Shazar Boulevard, adjacent to the ICC, on an area of over 10,000 square meters, and not far from the future location of the light-rail stations planned for the capital. The station will be part of a large, multi-story transportation complex that will include the new Egged Central Bus Station, the light-rail station and parking lots. A five-story building will be constructed atop the train station.

The estimated cost of building the line is NIS 3.2 billion, part of which will come from the state budget and part from external capital to be raised by Israel Railways.

The first tender for building the section of the line from Modi'in to Jerusalem, in the area between Kfar Daniel and the Latrun interchange, was published some two weeks ago. Construction work on this segment, stretching some seven kilometers, is set to begin within three months, and will continue for around two years. In late May 2004, additional tenders will be issued for building the tunnels and bridges on the line, at a cost of NIS 1.5 billion.

Because the train on this line will be powered by electricity (not by diesel fuel as is common today), transformation stations will be built along the route of the line in the area of the Lod junction and Sha'ar Haguy, adjacent to existing Israel Electric Corporation substations.

The first section of the line, from Tel Aviv to Ben-Gurion International Airport, that is now under construction was scheduled to open in the first quarter of 2004. However, railroad officials have said its opening will be postponed apparently until mid-June. Since the line reaches the new Ben-Gurion 2000 terminal that is scheduled to open in November of this year, free shuttles will run from the train station to the old terminal.

Acting director-general of Israel Railways Yossi Mor said that the original plan was to begin operation of the high-speed link by 2012; the timetable was then brought forward to 2009; and recently, following a directive from the chairman of the board at Israel Railways, Moshe Leon, and Transportation Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the timetable was moved forward to 2008.

Mor believes it will be possible to adhere to this timetable. he notes that the planning committees have approved most sections of the line, except for two - one near Latrun, and another near Mevasseret. These two sections require approval from the higher planning committee of the Judea and Samaria region.

Recently a 45-day extension was granted for the submission of objections; Mor believes the necessary permits will be available within two months.

Opening of refurbished line may be delayed

The refurbished rail line from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem that runs via Beit Shemesh is scheduled to open at the end of this year. The trip on the refurbished line, the Transportation Ministry says, will take around 65 minutes. The first section of the line from Tel Aviv to Beit Shemesh opened in September 2003 and some 40,000 people are riding this train each month - an increase of 40 percent on the forecast numbers.

The second segment from Beit Shemesh to Jerusalem is scheduled to open in December. However, due to the complex nature of the work entailed, and difficulties that have arisen during the course of the work, it seems the opening will be delayed for some three months. Israel Railways director-general Yossi Mor says all possible efforts are being made to ensure that the line opens at the originally scheduled time.

The cost of upgrading the existing rail line is estimated at around NIS 420 million. Ever since the decision to go ahead with the refurbishment project, and throughout the implementation of the project, many senior government officials have voiced objections to it. Some claimed that many of the assumptions on which the decision (made by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon) to refurbish the line was based were erroneous: the cost of the upgrade is higher than the estimate; the travel time will be longer and the express line will commence operations earlier than previously expected.

For example, when the decision was made to upgrade the existing line, the cost of work was estimated at NIS 340 million and the time frame was two years, with travel time on the line to be around an hour. Treasury officials argued that the journey would be around 70 minutes and the work would take more than two years. Sharon rejected the arguments of treasury officials and in December 2001, work began on the first segments of the line. Now it seems the work will take longer and, in the best case, be completed only in December 2004, while the cost will be around NIS 80 million higher than the estimate.

In addition, senior Transportation Ministry officials questioned the necessity of the line and even argued that it was dangerous because the tracks ran near the Palestinian town of Batir. Recently, a senior rail industry official even said that the decision to build the high-speed line was made on the basis of political and not economic-transportation considerations.

Mor says in response that the line is significantly essential from a transportation point of view. He rejects claims by those opposed to the line that it will be competition for the high-speed line now under construction and entail unprecedented spending. Mor adds that each line is intended to serve a different sector. The upgraded line is to provide transportation services to residents of Beit Shemesh, while the high-speed line will serve residents of the coastal plain. According to Mor, the high demand for the line along the segment that is open now to vehicle traffic is an indication of its necessity.