How a Massive Train Project Will Transform Israel's Center

Twenty years and $40 to 54 billion down the road, Tel Aviv will be even more hegemonic than it is now

A simulation of the light rail section in Tel Aviv.

Hundreds of kilometers of railway and light rail lines are slated to be built in central Israel over the coming two decades. This is central Israel’s largest, most comprehensive infrastructure project planned for the next decades, and once completed, there will be three metro lines, at least three light rail lines and train lines heading farther east.

The project is slated to cost hundreds of billions – the metro lines alone are expected to cost 150-200 billion shekels ($40.5 billion to $54 billion), the light rail lines at least 40 billion shekels, and tens of millions more will go extending the train lines.

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This process contains massive potential – the potential to connect regions and cities that are currently difficult to travel between, some of which have no public transport between them. Better travel conditions and public transport are major factors in making homes attractive in any given location, and also factor into companies’ decisions regarding office placement. The easier the transport, the better.

Currently, the center of Israel’s economic power runs along a section of the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv – from the Rokach junction and the Tel Aviv University train station to the north, to the Azrieli train station in the south, alongside the Azrieli mall in the center of Tel Aviv. Development plans around Israel’s central bus station to the south will further extend this zone to some degree.

The massive transportation infrastructure construction project offers the opportunity to break up Tel Aviv’s hegemony as Israel’s business center, and to spread more jobs and economic power into central Israel’s satellite cities. Railways spread out evenly throughout central Israel – from Ra’anana and Kfar Sava to the north, through Rishon Letzion and Rehovot to the south – would extend the demand for residential and commercial real estate.

But the plans show no indication of doing that. Rather, all the lines lead to Tel Aviv. The number of light rail, metro and train stations in Tel Aviv will be far greater than that in any other city and town, far beyond proportion to the number of residents and dunes within Tel Aviv.

The current plans, produced by Metropolitan Mass Transit System Ltd. at an estimated cost of half a million shekels, are well considered. It’s reasonable to assume that they are based on current demands. The problem is that these plans mean Israel will miss an opportunity by not changing the current situation, and passing up the chance to create an alternative to Tel Aviv.

One way to create such an alternative would have been to build a line connecting Ramle and Lod, southeast of Tel Aviv, to Petah Tikva, slightly northeast of Tel Aviv. Another line could have connected Rosh Ha’ayin, east of Tel Aviv and sitting along the Green Line, to Kiryat Ono and the surrounding towns just outside Tel Aviv. Another one could have run from Bnei Brak, just east of Tel Aviv, straight to Rishon Letzion, Nes Tziona and Rehovot to the south.

The current plans include a total of 90 stations in Tel Aviv, including 41 light rail stations, 18 metro stations, the eight existing train stations within Tel Aviv or next to its borders, and some 20 transfer stations between various lines. That’s four times the number planned for Petah Tikva, and six times the number planned for Rishon Letzion, Israel’s fourth largest city by population and larger than Tel Aviv in area. Farther afield, in Ra’anana and Kfar Sava to Tel Aviv’s northeast, six stations are planned per city, and Rosh Ha’ayin to the far east will have eight stations. Herzliya is slated to have 11 stations.

The cities to the south of Tel Aviv, including Ramle, Lod, Nes Tziona and Rehovot are just as large as the northern satellite cities, with 50,000-100,000 residents each. They each have between three and seven stations.

Most of the cities outside Tel Aviv will not have any stations to transfer between lines. One exception is Holon, which will get 26 stations including five transfer stations.

Given the current plans, it’s unlikely that employers will choose to set up operations in places beyond Tel Aviv. The weaker satellite cities will remain dependent.