May 20, 2016

Revolutionising transport in the Holy City

Written by 
  • Print
  • Email

Jerusalem's inaugural light rail line has reported impressive ridership figures since it opened in 2011. Kevin Smith visits the Israeli capital to speak with the people involved with this sometimes controversial project and to find out about the city's plans to further expand light rail's reach.

A WEEKDAY walk along Jerusalem's Jaffa Street reveals an area busy with activity. People are going about their daily chores, visiting the shops and banks, while many take time to sit outside and enjoy a cup of coffee. The peace is only disturbed momentarily by the rumble of a passing LRV. There is not a car in sight.

This is a far cry from the situation of a few years ago. As the Holy City's most important and famous commercial road, Jaffa Street was also its busiest bus corridor and was notorious for congestion and pollution. Up to 200 buses could visit the street in an hour due to Jerusalem's disorganised bus system. Pedestrians, it seemed, were not welcome, and many people chose to stay away.

IMG 0034"The city centre was dead, the shops were not attractive, and no one used to come here," says Mr Nadav Meroz, managing director of Jerusalem Transportation Masterplan (JTMT), a city government body which is responsible for planning public transport in the Jerusalem metropolitan area. "Pollution here was also extremely bad. There was a monitor positioned on top of our building and it was the worst in the country. Now with the LRT it has gone down to zero, and they have taken the monitoring station apart as there is no point in keeping it there."

The radical transformation is the result of a new approach to planning instituted by JTMT in the mid-1990s. Instead of prioritising the car as it had done since 1968, the government recognised the importance of the pedestrian and high-capacity public transport. As a result 12 streets around the city centre, including Jaffa Street, were pedestrianised and two-thirds of the public parking places in the city were removed in preparation for Jerusalem's first light rail line to come into service.

The 30-year build-operate-transfer (BOT) concession for the 13.5km Red Line was signed in September 2004. Financial close was subsequently secured in January 2006, with construction starting in June that year, and following some delays, the line finally opened in August 2011. The north-south line boasts 23 stations and currently serves an average of 140,000 passengers per day, or around 25% of the city's transit ridership. It is served by 46 32m-long Citadis 302 LRVs supplied by Alstom, which operate in multiple and have capacity for 500 passengers.

The BOT contract was awarded to the CityPass consortium, which originally comprised Israeli groups Ashtrom, Israel Infrastructure Fund (IIF), and Harel Insurance, as well as Alstom and Transdev. Alstom subsequently sold its 20% share to IIF and Harel in June 2013 with Transdev following suit with its 5% stake in August 2015, leaving the concessionaire as an entirely Israeli-based organisation. Transdev also relinquished its 100% holding in Connex Jerusalem, the operator of the line, which has since been renamed Connects, to a holding company jointly owned by Ashtrom, IIF and Harel.

"The operator and the concessionaire are now sister companies," says Mr Yaron Ravid, CityPass CEO. "It was a strategic decision by Transdev to leave 12 states around the world to narrow its activities, and Israel was one of those states. The relationship between the operator and concessionaire can have all kinds of friction, but when you have the same mother and father, I think it can work better and can help the project."

Alstom remains involved in Jerusalem through a 27-year maintenance contract, which encompasses work on the LRVs at a depot situated a short distance from Giv'at Ha-Mivtar station, as well as all track and overhead infrastructure, ticket machines, stations, signalling and traction substations.

Maintenance is complicated by the operating conditions. Maximum gradients of 9.1% mean that all bogies are motorised, while 25m-radius curves pose challenges. Temperatures can also range from below 0oC in the winter to over 40oC in the summer, which is problematic for infrastructure, while maintenance intervals are also restricted by the fact that no work takes place on Saturdays in observance of the Jewish Sabbath.

Alstom is required to carry out level 2, 3 and sometimes 4 maintenance procedures due to the tight operations schedule and the short turnaround required to source spare parts. The line's impressive 95% availability, 98-99% punctuality, and zero operations-related accident justifies this approach to maintenance. Yet it continues to face logistical challenges.

As Israel's first light rail and electrified railway, Ravid says securing sufficient skills to maintain what is a complicated system was also a challenge. As a result engineers have received significant support from France where much of the initial training of Israeli engineers took place.

In addition the LRVs and stations have become targets for Palestinian protestors who sometimes throw stones at the trams as they pass, meaning that doors and windows require regular replacement. Polycarbonate is used to strengthen the windows but the nature of this material means that whether damaged or not, new windows are required every two to three years.

Fleet utilisation

Efficient rolling stock maintenance is essential due to the network's high fleet utilisation. From August 2015, a consistent six-minute headway was introduced from 07.00-19.00 replacing the traditional morning and evening peak frequency model. As a result 19 tram pairs are in use at any one time, with one vehicle left in reserve, and three maintained throughout the day.

"The state understood that operating the railway in Jerusalem was very different from any other city," Ravid says. "That's the reason we suggested the switch to take the 23 trains that we have and try to allocate them in a way that is more suited to the public's need."

The patterns of use reflects Jerusalem's evolution into a modern city where daily life is more complex and people are as a result making journeys throughout the day. Taking a ride on an LRV also reveals its role as a social leveller, with Jews and ultra-orthodox Jews readily mixing with Arabs, which reflects the various neighbourhoods served by the line.

Running from Pisgat Ze'ev and the Palestinian neighbourhoods of Shu'afat and Beit Hanina in the north of the city via the central area, including Jaffa Street, the line turns west to the main bus station. From here it turns southwest via Jerusalem Chords, a stunning cable-stayed bridge which was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, and is said to resemble the harp played by the biblical King David. The line then continues along Herzel Boulevard serving Jewish neighbourhoods before terminating at Mount Herzel.

Meroz says social inclusion is one of the real success stories of the project and that JTMT has put a lot of effort into community outreach and PR to cater to the demands of the varying social groups in the city. "Before, the Arabs had their own methods of transport, the ultra-orthodox used their own special bus lines, but the light rail vehicle is one of the only means where all of them, all of us, are sitting together in the same place," Meroz says. "For example, people from the north Arab villages are coming to Jaffa Street, to the central business district, to shop. It was not like that six years ago."

However, increased social cohesion has not quelled speculation over political influence in the location of the line. In particular where part of the alignment north of Damascus Gate, the 16th century entrance to the Old City, runs on the old "Green Line," between modern Israel and the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Some Palestinians have also accused planners of using the line to reinforce Israeli rule in Arab areas in the east of the city.

Meroz counters this perception by arguing that JTMT is interested in meeting public demand, which is shown in the ridership figures, and is separate from political issues.

"Many organisations have tried to put this project into politics, and I've had guys from the BBC and Al Jazeera saying that it is this kind of train," Meroz says. "This organisation is looking at passenger demands. If you are ultra-orthodox, secular, Arab, Christian, from India, it doesn't matter. We are looking to find solutions according to the model. You have politics that is one issue. But you also have transport needs. This is another issue."

Unfortunately the perception persists and the line has come under attack during periods of unrest. In particular it was targeted in July 2014 following the murder of a Palestinian teenager in retaliation to the abduction and murder of three Jewish teenagers, which resulted in the closure of several stations at the northern end of the line. The subsequent skirmishes played out for several months during which time average passenger numbers fell to around 125,000 per day. While this has since recovered, Mr Danny Givon, head of public transport planning in JTMT's Model and Planning Unit, says it has left a scar on operations.

The potential for further attack means that security is inevitably tight around the light rail line, with armed guards visible, as they are at railway stations across Israel, although it is not an in-your-face experience.

"It's an open system," says Mr Simcha Ohrenstein, JTMT's chief technical officer. "The security measures we take do not affect the level of service and you do not feel a difference in service compared with other systems operated around the world. We don't have people who will check on everyone but you know they are there. Maybe that is why the level of satisfaction is so high."

Public support

High satisfaction with the level of service available is also reflected in public support for the government's plan to rapidly expand the existing network across the city, which has a population of 830,000. While some residents expressed disapproval before the initial line was built, now grievances centre on whether the network will reach a certain area of the city, and the location of specific stations.

Work is currently underway to lengthen the Red Line at both ends of the existing line, and two branch lines to the university campuses at Mount Scopus and Givat Ram, which will later form part of the Green Line. In the north, this will extend the line by 2.1km to Neve Ya'akov adding four new stations, and in the south a 3.2km link to Hadassah Ein Kerem Medical centre, one of the largest hospitals in the Middle East, will add five stations. The extensions are expected to enter service in 2021-22.

Meroz says negotiations are underway with CityPass to install systems on the extensions and to expand the level of service to meet the demands of the extended line. JTMT is proposing to double the size of the existing fleet to serve the expected 250,000 daily passengers and maintain or shorten current headways. It will also require a substantial expansion of the existing depot and upgrades to ticket machines.

Meroz told IRJ in April that he hopes to conclude negotiations over the expanded service with CityPass "in the next few weeks," after saying he hoped this would be finalised by the end of February during IRJ's visit on February 8, where he expressed frustration at the pace of progress.

"We are about to finish the first phase of widening the streets, building the walls, and we are about to go to the second phase, the engineering phase, which means the concrete and electro-mechanical parts," Meroz says. "The Mayor of Jerusalem is not going to be in a situation where the preliminary works are ready but we are waiting for a year or two to finish the negotiation. We hope to finish with the concessionaire but we're not willing to be prisoners, and if the situation is not good, we will publish the tender."

Ravid says CityPass is ready to take up the extension as a first refusal option on its original agreement, and he is optimistic that both sides will conclude the deal and avoid going to tender. He says if this was the case, it may prove to be a more costly exercise. "It is a deal between a buyer and a seller, if they meet, they meet. If not they can go forward to a tender," he says. "At the end of the day they will need to connect themselves to the existing line, and all of the systems are provided by Alstom."

New projects

Beyond the extensions, Meroz says JTMT is currently engaged in the detailed design phase for two further light rail projects: the 20.3km Blue Line from Ramot to Malha which includes an optional branch on Hebron Road and a 1.9km tunnel to avoid sharp gradients and narrow streets in the ultra-orthodox section of the city; and the 18.3km Green Line from Mount Scopus to Gilo, which includes an optional branch to serve the Talpiot neighbourhood.

The preliminary design of the Blue Line has been conducted by Systra, Del and Mati, and for the Green Line by Obermeyer and Amy Metom, with the projects, which are estimated to cost Shekels 20bn, now entering the detailed design phase. Meroz says this will take place in conjunction with environmental approvals, which are already well underway, and is an unusual situation but reflects the government's desire to begin construction as soon as possible.

As a result the plan is to publish an international tender for the construction of the Green Line in the first quarter of 2017, with preliminary works expected to begin later that year. The Blue Line tender will follow in 2018, with the goal to open the Green Line and part of the Blue Line by 2024-5.

The city and national government's commitment to public transport, and public transport planning, is reflected in JTMT's annual budget, which has increased from Shekels 40m in 2009, to Shekels 160m in 2015, and Shekels 200m this year. Yet Meroz says the government's experiences from the Red Line mean that the new projects will not be implemented using the same BOT model but a more conventional PPP.

"It is not a secret that the mayor of Jerusalem did not like the BOT model," Meroz says. "He said, 'you took the main street of Jerusalem, but I'm not in charge of the schedule, the budget, I don't have any influence. This is inconceivable from my perspective.'
"

On the other hand we have to be realistic, because we don't know how to build by ourselves. We are also not as rich as other countries, particularly when we are building four or five lines in Jerusalem in parallel. So we still need a relationship with the private sector. However, this must be a partnership where we can have more control over the timetable, the schedule, and the budget."

The government's commitment to light rail does not stop at these projects. At its request, JTMT is working on the development of the east-west Purple Line which will run from Talpiot to Hadassa - Ein Karem, and the Gold Line which will connect neighbourhoods in the south of the city with the centre running from Dung Gate to Israel Museum. Another line to East Jerusalem is also planned in the long-term.

According to Givon the goals of the expansion programme are to reduce travel times, improve reliability and environmental conditions, and promote enhanced and future land use through urban densification.

The case for transit to achieve these goals was and remains strong, yet Meroz says given the country's lack of experience, the municipality and the mayors of Jerusalem still took a huge risk by backing the initial project. The results so far show that they are justified in their thinking, and in their strong support for the next stages of JTMT's plans, which are gradually taking shape.

"In the summer we will celebrate five years of operation," Meroz says. "This has been both a transport revolution and an urban revolution. One of our main goals was to not only make the city centre more accessible to everyone, but more relevant, which when you visit it, it is clear that we have done this."

Get the latest rail news

IRJ Rail Brief newsletter covers global railway news