Jerusalem Light Rail to Finally Get on Track After 101 Years

In two months, the Jerusalem Light Rail will finally go into full operation; everyone is calling this the first light rail in the country, and certainly the first in Jerusalem, but this is a historical error.

In 1910, a small ad in the Havatzelet newspaper announced various decisions by "the clerks of Jerusalem," the second of which referred to "the building of electric carriages," or, in today's parlance, an electric-powered light rail network. In the ad, contractors were asked to submit their bids by the day after Yom Kippur of that year.

In two months - almost 101 years later and barring any more last-minute changes - the Jerusalem Light Rail will finally go into full operation. Everyone is calling this the first light rail in the country, and certainly the first in Jerusalem, but this is a historical error.

Library of Congress

Some 90 years ago - and no connection to the decision by the "clerks of Jerusalem" - the British Army built a light rail system in Jerusalem that served Gen. Edmund Allenby's forces in its conquests north of the city.

Comparing the two rail projects really isn't fair. The British light-rail builders didn't have to deal with laying track in a cramped urban center, nor did they have to uproot and replace old infrastructure. One certainly can't compare the two technologies.

Nevertheless, the comparison raises some gloomy thoughts about Israeli bureaucracy. It took around 11 years to build the modern light rail's first, 13-kilometer line, which runs from Mount Herzl to Pisgat Ze'ev. In contrast, the British managed to lay 30 kilometers of track in only four months, between May and September 1918, linking the German Colony with El-Bireh, on the outskirts of Ramallah.

This unknown chapter in the annals of local transportation history has barely been researched by Israeli historians, though the rail was described briefly by Walter (Pinhas ) Pick in a 1981 article in the journal, Kardom, and Ze'ev Vilnai mentioned it in his book on modern Jerusalem.

According to Pick, the rail system was built by Col. Jordan Bell, who commanded Rail Builders Company 272 of the British Engineering Corps. Some 850 laborers, Egyptians and local Arabs, worked on it; about half of them, Pick writes, were women.

The rail line traversed Jerusalem along a very winding route, apparently because the British wanted to avoid complex excavations and sharp inclines. The first station was at what is now the corner of Harakevet and Masaryk streets, from which the rail climbed through Talbieh along today's Hapalmah Street and down Harav Berlin Street.

From there, the line ran along the Valley of the Cross and today's Ben-Zvi Boulevard, past the hill where the Knesset now stands and the current location of the Jerusalem Convention Center, through Sanhedria, Givat Hamivtar and French Hill, and then northward to Shuafat and El-Bireh.

There is almost no trace of the rail line left today, though it is possible that some of the city's streets were paved along its route.

Interestingly, remnants of the rail line can perhaps be seen at the Museum of the Underground Prisoners at the Russian Compound in downtown Jerusalem that was built in a Mandate-era jail. At some point, Jerusalem researcher Doron Herzog discovered that the bars on the building's windows had been fashioned from relatively lightweight metal, and if one examines the bars carefully, one can discern the name of the company that manufactured the rail tracks - Dekubel.

While reusing metal from rail tracks was common, Chen Meling, deputy director of the Train Museum in Haifa and probably the country's top expert on local rail history, says there is no way to prove that the tracks turned into window bars had come from Jerusalem's first light rail.

The British army started to use the rail even before the project was finished, and it supplied Allenby's troops for a few months. But by the end of 1918, the front had moved further northward, and the Jerusalem electric rail become superfluous.

It was dismantled shortly after, leaving Jerusalemites to wait another 90 years for its next incarnation.