For nearly a decade, Jerusalemites prayed for its completion. Over budget and delayed by the occasional archaeological find, the project became something of a nationwide joke. Finally, in August 2011, the Jerusalem Light Rail took its maiden voyage along a track not quite nine miles long.
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Starting at Mt. Herzl, the Red Line, as it is called, snakes through the city over Santiago Calatrava’s harp-like Bridge of Strings, past the Central Bus Station, along Jaffa Road – where it hugs the walls of the Old City and waves to the Damascus Gate – then through Shuafat to the Pisgat Ze’ev neighorhood in East Jerusalem.
Despite a few early technical glitches and complaints of overcrowding, the light rail, which can hold about 500 people per train (the equivalent of 10 buses) has been a positive step in addressing the gridlocked nightmare that is Jerusalem traffic.
RIDERS TAKE NOTE: You must purchase a ticket from a station kiosk before getting on the train and you must validate this ticket before climbing aboard (otherwise a magically appearing inspector may slap you with a NIS 180 fine). Tickets are good for 90 minutes on the light rail and Egged buses.
The train runs regularly from 5:30 A.M. to midnight, Sunday through Thursday, more frequently during rush hour and roughly every 10-15 minutes in the middle of the day. Service ends early on Friday for Shabbat and picks up again when Shabbat ends on Saturday night (exact times change with the seasons so refer to the Jerusalem Light Rail website for updates as well as fare information.)
One of the more celebrated side effects of the new rail system is a traffic-free Jaffa Road, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, lined with shops, cafés and bars. Previously alternating as a parking lot for buses stuck in traffic or a speedway for delinquent taxis, the wide boulevard is now an airy pedestrian promenade.
PEDESTRIANS BEWARE: There is absolutely nothing protecting you from oncoming trains, which travel in both directions along Jaffa Road. Be sure to keep eyes and ears open at all times and avoid walking directly on the tracks.
The 23 stations that dot the Red Line are just the beginning – plans are underway to expand the existing route as well as add additional ones to the Hebrew University campuses on Givat Ram and Mt. Scopus. Given the epic gestation period of the first phase, Jerusalemites may have to be patient.