Jerusalem Rail Line Disrupted, Leaving Tel Aviv Commuters to Feel the Squeeze

Israel Railways reduced the number of trains on the coastal route, adding to the already crowded conditions

The Palestinian village of Beit Iksa in the West Bank is seen in the background as Israel's new high-speed rail line travels on its tracks in Jerusalem September 25, 2018.
REUTERS/Ammar Awad

Israel Railways shut down its Jerusalem line for several hours on Sunday due to a “technical problem.”

In a separate incident, hundreds of passengers on a train at the Lod station were trapped for over half an hour because of overcrowding, with no one able to get off and change to another train.

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The two incidents reflect a new reality that the government-owned company knowingly helped create by reducing service on the coastal line during the launching of the Jerusalem-and Ben-Gurion Airport line, due to an equipment shortage.

Trains and engines that had previously served the coastal line were moved over to the Jerusalem route, for which the equipment had not arrived because it had not been ordered in time. The process of moving the equipment from line to line forced a 25%-30% reduction of service in the timetable on the coastal line. Of the three to four trains running hourly along the coast, one was canceled.

In the new conditions on Israel Railway’s coastal line, only the strong survive to travel. Regular commuters, now forced to squeeze onto fewer trains, describe a jungle. Passengers are no longer competing for a seat in the morning but rather a place to stand. More people are willing to stand in rail car bathrooms, sometimes standing there the entire trip.

Yet even that is no longer sufficient. In many cases, would-be passengers down the line cannot squeeze through the closing doors onto the already full cars, and pin their hopes on finding room on the next train.

Moreover, conditions are deteriorating. The air conditioners can’t meet the burden, and people are pushed in between suitcases and bikes, which become obstacles when they try to board or get off the train.

The pressure has led to a cancellation of the reserved-seating system. Elderly people who cannot stand and have a hard time sitting on the floor were able to reserve seats for an extra fee to make sure they had a place before the launching of the Jerusalem line, but no more. In the new system, they either have to gamble that a place will open up for them, or give up and take another means of transportation.

The crowded conditions are causing delays of 20 minutes and up as more people board and get off. The stress is contributing to fights that detain trains at the platforms, causing a ripple effect across the system.

The Jerusalem train was supposed to connect to Tel Aviv, but completion of the line was postponed to year’s end at the earliest. Until then, Ben-Gurion is the only stop. Passengers who want to go further have to change trains. When there are no problems, the train departs from Jerusalem twice a day. But problems there are. Last week service was halted for a few hours. Israel Railways announced the service suspension “for a while” on its Facebook page.

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Either way, anyone who wants to board the train has to order the ticket on a dedicated website and receive an email conformation. Each passenger may order three tickets at once.

Israel Railways management sends passengers announcements and instructs them to arrive at the station 15 minutes before the train departs. The trip from the Arlosoroff station in Tel Aviv takes 45 minutes, including changing trains at Ben-Gurion. Last week, about five or six passengers could be seen on each level of each car of the double-decker train on the 9:30 A.M. run. Workers on the Jerusalem line say the train is operating at 10%-15% capacity. The fact that there is no time advantage to taking the train over the bus may explain the low passenger rate.

Changes in public transportation always cause disruptions, even if they are justified. Many people need to change their habits at once, and learn to use the new service. However, this is not the case here. The pressure on the coastal line stems from a dramatic reduction of service. The unattractiveness of the Jerusalem train stems from having to pre-order tickets and facing obstacles, and from its being much less intuitive than the competition – with buses leaving every 10 minutes without prior notice and being easy to board.