Comin' Round the Mountain - if She Comes

If the projections of senior officials of the Ministry of Transport materialize, and if the Jerusalem Transport Master Plan is implemented on schedule, the capital should have an electric light rail system within five years.

The system will be fast, quiet and environment-friendly. Each train will carry 500 passengers and trains will arrive at each station every four minutes. Access to the train will be easy because there will be no steps - good news for the disabled, the elderly and parents with baby carriages. The train will have an electronic information system that will tell passengers, in text and sound, where they are on the route at any given moment.

A similar rail system is scheduled for the greater metropolitan Tel Aviv area within seven years. Later Haifa and perhaps Be'er Sheva will get one. Israelis may lag a few decades behind North America and Europe, but within the foreseeable future may now see their own light rail system.

The long delay in the creation of light rail systems could at least be beneficial in a number of ways. The ones created here will be the cutting edge of rail transport, says the director of the Jerusalem Transport Master Plan, Moshe Hirsch. He said the bidders in the tender for Jerusalem's system are competing on whose technology is the most modern and advanced.

"Each year," says Shmuel Nagar, the chief engineer of NTA (the Hebrew initials for Metropolitan Mass Transit System which is responsible for installing Tel Aviv's system) "there are new developments in drive mechanisms, in the method of travel and in the materials from which the train is constructed."

Nagar says technological innovations in production and use are constantly being introduced - meaning the light rail systems that will operate in Israel will "incorporate all the latest developments." The light rail trains that will function in Israel will operate on electric power, will have a narrower gauge and will be smaller than a regular train and their dimensions will be ideally suited to transport within an urban area.

The trains will travel above-ground on cast iron tracks laid on the asphalt of city streets. The roof of each train will have sensors to take power from cables along the route, the power being supplied by small relay stations set at 400-meter intervals. Hirsch says light trains first appeared in the 1890s but were cars pulled by horses that galloped along the tracks. With the invention of electricity, the light trains ran on an overhead or ground power supply.

However it quickly became apparent that ground electric power sources were a safety hazard, giving cyclists on the train route nasty shocks, and a final change was made to run trains on overhead power.

Ground power tracks were reintroduced when subway trains were developed to solve the problem of installing urban rail systems in areas where above-ground trains were ruled out because of building density. Special tunnels were dug for the subway systems.

The next stage, says Hirsch, was the invention of the streetcar - a massive, ugly, noisy vehicle that clattered along in urban areas using the same streets as other vehicles. As motor vehicles developed, the light rail system appeared less and less advantageous. In the mid-1950s many cities began to replace their streetcar fleets with electric buses, which were faster and did not need iron tracks to move on city streets.

Between the 1940s and the late 1970s many countries abandoned the light rail systems and began to pave expressways to meet the increasing demand of automobiles. This was a bad decision, obvious by the early 1980s, when it was clear that the construction of new expressways encouraged the use of more private cars for city travel - in turn spawning the construction of more expressways.

Once again, the light rail system emerged as an attractive transport option, with one compelling reason being its quantitative edge, that a train can carry ten times more passengers than an urban bus.

Unlike streetcars, the light rail systems used by most European cities are based on new, advanced technologies bringing quiet, rapid travel. Another important difference is that light rail systems have their own separate network and trains are not obstructed by other vehicles.

Over the years, many technical and visual innovations have been introduced in light rail trains. Hirsch said an additional driver's compartment was placed at the rear of the train, eliminating the need for wide turns at the end of the train route. The length of trains was also increased from an old streetcar standard of 12-18 meters to 20-45 meters, greatly increasing the number of passengers. In large trains, couplings were added between the cars, easing movement along narrow city streets and on small-radius turns.

Engines have also improved radically. The noise produced by train engines has been steadily reduced and their speed increased, along with enhanced acceleration and deceleration. The mid-1980s brought the low-floor car, allowing passengers to board and leave without climbing any step. This allows easy access for the handicapped and for baby carriages.

The design of the car itself has changed - windows and doors are larger, and the car's structure is more transparent, fitting in better with city landscapes.

Despite the advantages of all this innovative technology, Israeli cities still grind along without the benefits of light rail systems. This carries a heavy price tag, given the many hours frustrated Israeli drivers spend jammed in traffic-clogged streets, wasting precious working hours.

It still remains uncertain whether Israel is prepared to wait much longer for the promised arrival of modern light trains, or whether it will give up and in the end opt for some other technological solutions.