Six months late and still well short of completion, the new Jerusalem-Tel Aviv train opened for service on Tuesday, traveling only to and from Ben-Gurion Airport.
Lilach Shemesh and Orit Sitbon came from Haifa with their daughters to spend the day in Jerusalem. “The trip was excellent, but there are no signs,” Shemesh said. “It’s lucky there was someone to direct us.”
There are security checkpoints at the entrance to the Jerusalem station, but astoundingly, the x-ray machines weren’t working. Instead, two guards checked bags by hand.
The guards said the machines actually do work, but the operator was on break. Asked whether there was no replacement for him, they replied that since this is still the breaking-in period, manual checks are sufficient.
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The company said the early morning trains were almost full, with about 400 people per train. Later, more cars will be added, and the number will rise to 1,000. There are now 28 trains a day, a maximum of 11,200 passengers.
The train, which left the airport for Jerusalem at 9:01 A.M., wasn’t very crowded; most carriages had only a few passengers. But the 10 A.M. train from Jerusalem was fairly full, mainly with Jerusalemites who wanted to try out the new line.
The line runs through sections of land Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day Way near the Palestinian village of Beit Surik, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and in the Latrun Valley, about midway between the holy city and Ben-Gurion International Airport.
Palestinians who live in the West Bank are largely barred by Israel from traveling abroad via Ben-Gurion, and cross overland to Jordan instead to flying out of the airport in Amman. Israel cites security concerns for the ban.
“It is very sad that you see a railway and see modern technology on your land and inside your land and you cannot use it or exploit it because of the element of power of the occupation,” said Mohammed al-Tari, 55, from Beit Surik.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat accused Israel of “illegally making use of occupied Palestinian land” in setting the train’s route, which will eventually include a direct high-speed link between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv city.
Erekat said the train was part of Israel’s “agenda of turning its occupation into annexation.”
At Ben-Gurion, Yogev Yair, a 41-year-old high-tech employee traveling with his toddler son to Jerusalem, hailed the opening of the high-speed link. “I personally have no problem with the line traversing the ‘Green Line’ (into the West Bank),” he said.
Because the train line isn’t yet finished, people who want to go from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv must currently transfer at Ben-Gurion. Including the 12-minute wait at Ben-Gurion, that means the total trip takes 45 minutes, rather than the less than 30 minutes it’s supposed to take once the line is completed.
For now, the train will only run Sunday through Thursday, and only until early evening. Trains will depart every half hour, with the last one leaving Jerusalem at 7:32 P.M. and Ben-Gurion at 7:31 P.M.
When completed, the line will be 56 kilometers long, including several bridges and 19 kilometers of tunnels.
After numerous delays, the completed line was supposed to open in March, going all the way from Jerusalem to Herzliya via Tel Aviv. Instead, it opened in September and goes only to Ben-Gurion, despite 10 years of work and an investment of 6.7 billion shekels ($1.9 billion), twice the original budget.
During the trip, conversations largely revolved around the new line itself and the beautiful scenery. Many passengers complained that their eardrums filled when the train entered a tunnel.
At the Jerusalem station, the public address system declared that this is one of the five deepest stations in the world. Elevators swiftly conveyed passengers to ground level, but the escalators were slow, taking several minutes. A manager said the slow speed was because several passengers had said the steep ascent made them dizzy.
On the trip from Jerusalem, there were many families with children.
“This is a revolution that should have happened 20 years ago already,” said Shlomo, a married yeshiva student traveling with his wife and five children. He said he ordered the tickets by phone and had no problems.
David Ronen, a disabled man in a wheelchair accompanied by an aide, also said everything had worked beautifully. Both men praised Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz.
But the train’s stewards, who are employed through manpower agencies, were considerably less happy.
“We’re standing outside without even fans,” said one stewardess, A. “All the anger gets channeled at us. And there are quite a few complaints about problems with getting and using the tickets.”
She had already dealt with four passengers that morning who had trouble entering or leaving the station. “I’ve twice been told I’m a bad person when I have no authority to do anything, and all I can do is call the manager to solve the problem,” she said. “We’re treated disparagingly; they don’t even bring us water.”
A. has worked for the railroad for five years. But because she and her colleagues are employed through a manpower agency, she said, “we get paid peanuts and can be abused,” denied even “basic things like fans, water and shade.”
At the airport, the bright red train drew smiles from eager passengers.
“It was like a dream come true ... It’s really quite amazing and will be a valuable asset to people wanting to get to and from the airport,” said Manchester-born Eli Rothbard, 45, a ground services employee at Ben Gurion.
The train, traveling at speeds of up to 160 kilometers per hour (100 mph), traverses a series of new tunnels and bridges, passing through hills between Jerusalem and the airport, about 40 km (25 miles) away.
The current estimate is that the line to Tel Aviv’s Hahagana station will be ready in another four months. But the next stage, to Tel Aviv’s Savidor station, isn’t expected to open for more than a year, and the extension to Herzliya will take even longer.
There have been plans for a fast train between Jerusalem and the city of Tel Aviv, Israel’s commercial hub on the Mediterranean coast, since 1995. But the project – infrastructure work began in 2005 – has been slow-moving, plagued by a lack of funding and environmental concerns.
Completion of electrification work and the opening of the route between the two cities has been frequently postponed. No firm inaugural date has been announced.
An existing rail line built by the Ottoman Turks more than 100 years ago meanders around picturesque hills and the journey takes more than 90 minutes.
The preparations to open the new line caused numerous disruptions on other lines in recent months, including trains to Ben-Gurion. Summer is the peak tourism season, when service to Ben-Gurion is in high demand.
To replace the missing airport trains, the railroad provided bus service to Ben-Gurion. But for most passengers, this was a poor substitute.
Thus critics complained that the Transportation Ministry had secured its ribbon-cutting ceremony at the price of disrupting regular train travel and inaugurating a line that doesn’t even go all the way to Tel Aviv.