About two weeks ago, Jerusalem's CityPass workers took down the fences that had lined both sides of the light rail track running through the city streets. The train's gray cars are now exposed, in all their grandeur, and with all the dangers they pose to Jerusalem's drivers and pedestrians. Barring any unexpected hitches, on April 17, the night before the Passover holiday begins, passengers will finally board Israel's first light rail.
The person now responsible for this transportation revolution is CityPass CEO Yehuda Shoshani. In a first interview, held on the plastic-covered seats in one of the train cars, he tried to mend the company's problematic image among Jerusalem's residents.
Snarled by crises and hitches along the way, the project and its developers have become synonymous with foot dragging, dug up streets and traffic jams. While CityPass indeed bears partial responsibility for these problems, the municipality and the state are also at fault. But unlike the company's previous CEO, Shoshani does not blame the state or municipality. Over the last six months, the level of friction and number of mutual recriminations between the state and the concessionaire have lessened considerably.
Still, discussions between the two sides are held regularly, especially through a kind of private judicial system created especially for the project. Comprised of legal arbitrators (jurists Boaz Okon and Dov Weissglas ) and an engineering arbitrator (Avi Udvin ), these mediators even became project managers of sorts as the mistrust between the parties deepened.
Shoshani, 52, a resident of Reut and a colonel in the reserves, left the army six years ago to manage Teva Pharmaceuticals' Asia and Pacific division. About six months ago, he was appointed deputy CEO of the light train's operations by then-CEO of CityPass, Yair Naveh, who now serves as IDF deputy chief of staff.
What will Jerusalem look like once the light rail starts running? What will change?
"It will be a Jerusalem with more culture, more trade, more working hands and less unemployment ... because of the light train," Shoshani explains. "Environmentally, too, air pollution will drop, the number of cars traveling in Jerusalem will drop because of the park and ride lots, there will be fewer traffic jams and it will be more pleasant to ride around the city. The train will provide the city's residents with the best service. Take, for example, the air conditioner. The air conditioner we've installed on the train is the strongest one in the world. The loudspeakers will also make announcements in three languages - Hebrew, Arabic and English.
"In recent years, the city center has been on the decline. People complained and expressed their unhappiness with the situation. In a year's time, the center of the city will blossom. It is a process that's already starting. We will be connecting the peripheral areas to the city center quickly, comfortably and safely. We already see real estate prices rising in the center of Jerusalem. Wherever there is a train, real estate prices are going up by 20 to 30 percent. Companies are already planning high-rises near the train line. In recent months, firms are already advertising that they are 'close to the light rail.'"
Your company has a negative image among Jerusalemites.
"True. One of our goals is to improve the company's image. We have done a lot of good things, but our image is not at its best. In negotiations with the state, we compromised over the timetable. We thought that November would be the best time to launch commercial service, but we accepted the challenge to tighten the schedule and provide a good start. We also agreed to maintain the shuttles [the train's partial services] as early as April. Residents must understand that closing Jaffa Road and conducting the trial runs are not the concessionaire's inventions, but part of the necessary process of operating the train."
Why was the project delayed five years beyond the original timetable?
"The main problem concerned responsibility and authority. When you give one body most of the responsibility, but his authority is minimal, or nonexistent, then his ability to implement plans is limited. The unit responsible for operations needs authority, too. This relates to the five main issues that caused our delays: getting construction permits, getting work permits, getting traffic permits, coping with infrastructure work and carrying out archeological work along the route."
"The concessionaire has to get permits from the municipality, ask the police to assign policemen, and speak with the Ministry of Transportation, the finance minister and the Antiquities Authority," Shoshani says. "There is not one body that coordinates the project. In other countries, the municipality would be responsible. It holds all the authority and all the responsibility. The model was already changed for the [light rail] project in Tel Aviv and the state will provide the infrastructure. I think the project in Tel Aviv will therefore move faster than in Jerusalem."
A government source involved in developing the light rail adds: "Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai must pray every morning toward Jerusalem - not because of the Western Wall, but because it is thanks [to what Jerusalem went through] that he has been spared from having to issue a tender."
Shoshani implies that the project's primary regulator - a joint municipal and Transportation Ministry body - was responsible for the problems, but he avoids uttering any direct criticism.
Officials involved with the master plan declined to comment on the claims, saying: "This is neither the time nor place to raise complaints about the way CityPass operated over the past six and a half years. We are at the project's final stages and are doing everything so that Jerusalem residents can finally enjoy the light rail."
Do you think the declining tension between CityPass and the state has anything to do with the fact that politicians are beginning to see the train as an asset rather than a burden?
"I don't know. I'm a manager, not a politician. There is no doubt that this project is now seen differently from how it was perceived earlier. Up until a few months ago, every problem was solved with arbitrators, with jurists. Today we have more experience and things are being done differently.
"I have two explanations for the change: First of all, the system matured. Everybody realized that if we want to develop a good train within the set timetable, we have to make compromises. Secondly, there are new managers involved in the project, and so there are fewer people who are angry at one another."
A senior municipal official described the project as being traumatic for Jerusalem. Do you think this will prevent the development of new routes?
"The trauma is behind us. I think we've already proven that we can build a network that, in international terms, is good and reliable. There is already talk of extending the line to the north and south, as well as to the campuses of Hebrew University. I think that now, when they see the train running, the decision makers will feel much more comfortable about speeding up the process. Eventually there will be three light rail routes and six bus lines with large capacities - and this will change Jerusalem completely."
Shoshani stops talking as the train silently climbs the Chords Bridge at the entrance to the city. "Look, what a view," he says. "There's no other bridge like this in the world."
Residents of Jerusalem will have to wait a few more months until they, too, can enjoy this view. The train's partial operation, starting in two weeks, will consist of boarding and dropping off passengers at seven stations, most of them along Jaffa Road.
Shoshani reveals, for the first time, just where the light rail will be operating later this month: It will run from the central bus station, near the entrance to town, and up to the Damascus Gate near the Old city. It will stop at the following stations: Haturim Street, Mahaneh Yehuda Market, Davidka Square, central Jaffa Road, city hall and the Damascus Gate.
Each trip will cost NIS 2 for those who do not reside in Jerusalem and will be free for residents, who can obtain a pass at stands along Jaffa Road.
Shoshani has one request: "Just as we have learned not to pick wild flowers, we should also know how to board trains without sneaking on. Even when the journey is free, it's important to pass by the ticket validator next to every door. This will serve the public later when the train transitions to full-scale operations."
Besides its advantages, the new light rail also presents a safety challenge to pedestrians unaccustomed to a huge, silent vehicle running next to the sidewalk, and to drivers who may forget that train tracks cross over their route. The National Road Safety Authority and CityPass each recently launched separate safety campaigns regarding the light rail.
Have you lost any sleep over safety issues?
"No manager dealing with public transportation can sleep. And each one of them will work to improve safety by as much as possible," Shoshani says. "There will be accidents, just as there are accidents with any other vehicle. The only way to avoid any accidents from happening is if the train just doesn't run at all. But we are doing everything to reduce the number of potential accidents.
"Unlike bus drivers, light rail drivers are cut off from anything that can distract them. They do not sell tickets and do not talk to anyone. Their attention is devoted to the tracks, at all times. The driver have total discretion, too. They are supposed to reach a certain speed, but if one of them sees a woman walking with earphones who does not look at him, he will slow down.
"One of the reasons we're doing the trial run is to get the public and the drivers used to the light rail. Up until now, it was enough that drivers stopped at red lights. But this is no longer enough, because if you stop at a red light, but past the line, the train will hit you. Part of the process is police enforcement, another part involves a public campaign."
Last month's terror attack near the central bus station set a precedent. It was the first time the light rail stopped for security reasons, even though it was still on a trial run. Unlike bus lines, the new train is very sensitive to interferences. A few minutes after one car stops at some point along the way, all the other trains on that route will stop. This is what happened the day of the attack.
The light rail also has two other elements that make it especially sensitive to attacks. Its size - up to 250 people can fit in a car, which could make it a strategic target - and the fact that there is no driver or ticket seller situated between the passengers and the train's entrance.
At a time of increased attacks, aren't you concerned the public will be afraid to board a train?
"The state is responsible for security. I know what it plans to do and what sort of professional solution it is devising to provide security, so I am calm. I don't think the public will be more fearful about boarding a train than a bus. In the new buses, too, passengers do not pass by the driver. In terms of clearing the track, we have vehicles that can tow the train quickly from the tracks and allow buses to travel along the same route."
What kind of reactions do you get when you tell people you're the CEO of CityPass?
"Today the reactions are mixed. But a year from now, they won't be; people will forget the construction process and see the glass half full. I'm sure they will have good things to say about CityPass. We are already seeing the positives, really. We are meeting the deadline. Whoever says 'you promised but did not deliver' is wrong. That is all over. The train is on the tracks."
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