Jerusalem rail - Olivier Fitoussi - February 2012
Passengers boarding a connecting train on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl last week. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
Text size

The first demonstration against Jerusalem's light rail system took place in the capital yesterday, when 20 residents protested against fines imposed on passengers making the ostensibly free switch from a bus to the light rail.

"Nothing about this system works except for the inspectors," said Sarit Heskes, one of the protesters.

City Pass, the company that operates the light rail, announced last week that its inspectors will stop fining passengers for problems it says are caused by the Egged bus company. Passengers are supposed to be allowed to use their bus passes to switch to the light rail for free.

But the problems plaguing the mass transit makeover in Jerusalem - not the least of which is the low public opinion of it - are too big to solve with a single announcement addressing one lone issue.

A month and a half after the completion of the first stage of Jerusalem's transportation overhaul, passengers' anger and frustration seem to be rising faster than the speed of the capital's railway cars. At least three Facebook pages and a number of protest petitions have been steered into cyberspace by infuriated passengers.

The most challenging aspect of the city's new transportation grid is the need to connect the existing bus network to the light railway system. In this first phase, the routes of 22 bus lines have been altered. In many cases, passengers need to ride multiple buses and the light rail to reach their destination, even if one bus ride did the trick beforehand or the journey is just a few kilometers.

For instance, a blind woman from the Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood, who up to now traveled on one bus to reach her workplace in Rehavia, now needs to take two buses and the light rail to reach the same spot.

Some residents are upset over long waits for the light rail.

"I'm late to work every day because of this new network," laments Tamar Hadad, a resident of the Kiryat Menachem neighborhood, who boards the light rail at Mount Herzl, the primary exchange depot for passengers transferring from buses to the light rail.

"They promised that a train would come every four minutes, but there's nothing in sight until at least 10 minutes go by," said Hadad.

Winter chill, summer sun

Mount Herzl juts into the Jerusalem skyline at an imposing height of 834 meters. Thousands of passengers pass through this station every day, though this high spot is exposed to the winter chill and the summer sun. There is no protection against rain, and puddles drench the benches.

"Last week we waited here for 15 minutes in the bitter cold," one ultra-Orthodox youth related. "We asked the conductor to open the doors, so we could sit inside until the light rail left the station and warm up. But he wouldn't do it."

Last week, after several complaints were made, some transparent plastic panels were added to the station, to provide minimal protection against the rain. Transportation Ministry officials pledge that by next winter, there will be roofing to protect passengers from the cold and the rain.

As for the long waits, City Pass officials say many of the delays are caused by the discovery of suspicious objects that could pose a bomb threat. "City Pass has taken steps to attend to all the problems in a speedy, efficient fashion," the company said in a statement.

Wasting a third of the trip

Dan Tauber, a mathematician who lives in Jerusalem's Beit Hakerem neighborhood, has built a mathematical model to prove what he considers to be the inefficiency of the new transportation grid in his area.

He calculated 23 different routes in which, he argues, passengers are forced to waste a third of the total journey waiting for a bus or light rail. The average waiting time for a bus that connects with the light rail system is 10 minutes, which is often longer than it takes to walk to the closest light rail stop.

"Only suckers stand there and wait in the cold," he said. Indeed, the neighborhood buses often seem to be moving around empty. "I spoke to a driver who said that in his last five journeys, not a single passenger came on board," said Tauber.

Transportation Ministry officials are asking the public to give the new system "a little more time" to get things right.

They also say that their analysis shows the new system has reduced the overall length of trips within the city, even if it doesn't seem that way to some individual passengers.

According to the ministry, travel time has been reduced by an average of 6-17 minutes. When the entire transportation grid is completed, the time saved is expected to increase to between 15 and 20 minutes, they say.

"It's true that an individual passenger sometimes does not feel the change, but there is improvement all the time," said Dror Ganon, deputy director of the ministry's public transit department. "Give this a chance - don't throw the baby out with the bathwater."