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Almost 100 years after electric trains began running in European countries, the system is being examined for possible implementation in Israel. Israel Railways has set up a steering committee charged with looking into the viability of changing the Israeli rail system and replacing the current diesel-powered trains with electric-powered ones. The steering committee is expected to complete its work within a year, at which time a tender for the work could be published.

An electric-powered rail system entails the positioning of electricity poles along the rails some 50-60 kilometers apart. Small power stations located at various intervals along the route provide these poles with electrical power; the trains are also equipped with an upper contact wire - a pantograph - that receives electricity from the poles and transfers it to the engine of the locomotive.

The general manager of Israel Railways, Amos Uzani, notes that electric-powered trains have many advantages over their diesel-powered counterparts. They are 30 percent faster, thereby making it possible to run 13 trains an hour compared to the 10 today; the malfunction rate is lower; maintenance is 10-20 percent cheaper; they cause less environmental pollution; and the ride is quieter. Another advantage is that electric trains cost less because far fewer diesel trains are manufactured today. "In the long term, it would be a very worthwhile step economically," Uzani says.

The overall cost of introducing an electric-powered rail system in Israel is estimated at $210 million - the country has some 700 kilometers of main railway lines and the cost of installing an electrical system is around $300,000 a kilometer. Uzani says the electric trains will replace the diesel versions gradually. In the initial stage, 100 kilometers of track will be replaced in the greater Tel Aviv area - the lines between Rishon Letzion, Ben-Gurion International Airport and Rosh Ha'ayin - and both diesel and electric trains will be run on these lines. The use of diesel-powered trains will be reduced as more electric trains are acquired.

Following completion of the first stage, the use of electric trains will be expanded to include the Rehovot, Ashkelon, Netanya, Be'er Sheva, Haifa and Jerusalem lines. Uzani says that it will be possible to run the double-decker trains purchased just a few months ago as electric trains, after making some minor adjustments.

According to Israel Railways, electric-powered trains could be up an running on many lines some four years after launching of the project. Uzani says that the steering committee has discussed the establishment of the power stations alongside the tracks with the Israel Electric Corporation and that the program has been presented to the Finance and Transportation ministries.

The Finance Ministry is, however, somewhat less optimistic. "The use of electric trains has many advantages, but this is a very expensive project. Consequently, the feasibility study should first be completed. Beyond that, the appropriate statutory authorizations are required, and that is a process that could take many years."