Bus Drivers Take the Wheel as Light Rail Reaches the Holy City

Drivers of Jerusalem's light rail train are practicing their new skills on the tracks, and getting used to a new celebrity status.

Uzi Ovadia, a bus driver until nine months ago, will be among the most important people of the new year in Jerusalem. Starting this summer, Ovadia and 50 of his colleagues will be sitting in the driver's seat of the light rail trains that will crisscross the capital and - it is to be hoped - restore to Jerusalemites the faith that one day the interminable infrastructure work will end and they will be better off.

Ovadia, 44, a resident of Ma'aleh Adumim, is among the first light rail drivers in Israel. He studied the mysteries of this profession in Nice, France, where the Veolia company operates a light rail system; it is also the company in charge of operating the system in Jerusalem. Currently, even before he has had the privilege of transporting passengers, Ovadia is also working as an instructor for other new drivers, all of them also former bus drivers. The training takes three months and includes personality checks, and both written and practical tests.

Driver Uzi Ovadia - Tomer Appelbaum/BauBau
Tomer Appelbaum/BauBau

A single train consisting of two cars, Ovadia notes, can transport 10 times as many passengers as an ordinary bus, with a capacity of 50: "There's no comparison to a bus - it's the difference between day and night. There is no air pollution, there are no traffic lights, it's like sailing. I want to tell the residents of Jerusalem that we're already getting to the end - just another little stretch and you will bless the day this train came to town. And I am saying this with complete confidence. We'll get everywhere much more quickly, with a good climate-control system and without hassles."

The light rail will officially make its debut this August. That date, set last week, has replaced April, which replaced September 2010 and others going back to 2006 - the date bruited at the start of the project, back in 2000.

To date, the rails have been laid along the whole length of the Mount Herzl-Pisgat Ze'ev route, the cars are already in place and test drives are under way. Though most of the forays have been carried out on the northern part of the line, the train has already crossed Jaffa Road to the cheers of crowds, during the Jerusalem March this past Sukkot. Four cars have also been privileged to drive across Santiago Calatrava's Chords Bridge at the entrance to the city, and within days, if there are no further delays, one train will make it as far as Mount Herzl, completing a full trip along the 40-kilometer route.

In the coming months more test runs will be carried out. And, as suggested by Mayor Nir Barkat, the "pill" that is supposed to sweeten the current delays in operation will be free, albeit partial service, for inhabitants of the city starting in April.

Before the official inauguration takes place, it is hoped that the main dispute between the state and CityPass - the company that won a 30-year concession to build and operate the train - will be completely resolved: According to the franchisee, the state reneged on its commitment to give priority to the train at all intersections with traffic lights along the route. The company contends that this will virtually transform the train into another bus that waits at lights like other vehicles. By contrast, at the Transportation Ministry they say CityPass is using the issue as an excuse for its delays and failures. In the meantime the state and the firm have agreed on giving the train priority at 80 intersections. The fate of the 20 remaining affected junctions will be decided during test runs, between April and August.

Safety is naturally one of the main concerns of those involved in the project at both the ministry and the municipality; especially worrisome is the possibility of accidents in which pedestrians will be hurt. On most of the route the train will move along without any barriers between it and pedestrians. Along the main thoroughfare of Jaffa Road, it will run through the center of a pedestrian mall. The fear is that pedestrians unaccustomed to the silence of a moving light rail train may walk onto the tracks without noticing it.

Indeed, at one recent meeting on the issue, a government official predicted that deaths are quite likely to occur due to that sort of accident during the first months of the train's operation.

Driver Ovadia tries to reassure on this score. "It's necessary to give all due respect to the train, to be careful, to get to know it," he says. "It's a very friendly thing. The one in Nice is very reminiscent of ours. There too it intermingles with pedestrians and cars; people walk alongside the track and respect the train. If people learn to do this here, nothing will happen."

From the sophisticated "high-tech" driver's seat at the front of the train, Ovadia notes, the visibility is excellent, but there is no steering wheel: "You have a track and you always need to be alert. You can't veer to the right or the left like you can [when you're driving a car], if someone jumps onto the road in front of you.

"Meanwhile, we are letting people get used to the train's sound, its size and the gong," says Ovadia, referring to the clanging that has become the train's trademark - a kind of ding-dong sound reminiscent of that of old European trains.

"When we swing into Air Force Street," in Pisgat Ze'ev, he adds proudly, "there isn't a single person who doesn't take out a camera and photograph the train."