Jerusalem train - Michal Fattal - 19082011
Jerusalem city hall staffers decorating a train station ahead of Friday’s service launch. Photo by Michal Fattal
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After eight months of trial runs and years of delays the Jerusalem light rail service is set to start running Friday morning, with travel on the trains to be free for the first two weeks.

When Ehud Olmert, who was Jerusalem mayor at the time, initiated the project in 1995, he declared: "Within about five years a light rail [system] will be established in the city center."

Over the years, the various entities involved in the project have traded accusations over who was responsible for the delays. These include the transportation and finance ministries, the Jerusalem Municipality and an array of outside firms whose services were procured for the project. The most bitter fight took place between the Jerusalem Transportation Master Plan Team, the agency in charge of implementing the master plan, and CityPass, the firm that was awarded the franchise to operate the light rail system.

The two have been in arbitration proceedings over their differences for years and each are claiming about half a billion shekels from the other. According to officials at Jerusalem Transportation Master Plan Team, the problems were caused by CityPass' submission of a bid for the project that was several hundred million shekels lower than what was necessary in practice to carry out the project. For its part, however, CityPass countered that obstacles were placed in its way by officials from the master plan agency itself.

The target date for the inauguration of light rail service was postponed no less than four times. The initial date was January 2009, a deadline to which CityPass committed in 2002 when it successfully bid on the project. Due to funding problems and lack of staff, the date was deferred to August 2010, but then CityPass announced that the traffic light network for the trains was not compatible with Israeli stop light systems, so it asked for another extension. CityPass was then given until April of this year, but after the problem persisted and other safety issues went unresolved, an August date was settled on.

"There were a lot of difficulties along the way and we still haven't finished with all of them," said Transportation Ministry Director General Dan Harel, "but I promise that from this point, the improvement curve will be very rapid." Among the remaining matters to be dealt with, in addition to more efficient operation of the traffic signals, are air conditioning issues, electrical and communications problems and the operation of the ticketing system. The Jerusalem Municipality therefore announced this week that travel on the system for the first two weeks will be free of charge. Only part of the system will be operational at first, but those involved say the entire system will be up and running within about four months.

During that time, the frequency of the trains will increase and travel time will decrease. Once all the traffic lights are installed so that the trains are given the right of way over other traffic, travel over the entire 13.8 kilometer line is due to take 42 minutes from Pisgat Ze'ev at one end to Mount Herzl at the other. The system will operate from 5:30 A.M. to midnight on weekdays. The system will not operate on Shabbat but will resume half an hour after Shabbat ends. During rush hour, trains will arrive at the stations every four minutes. At off-peak times, there will be trains on average every 10 minutes.