BENEATH the streets of Jerusalem construction is well underway of a new station that will transform transport for residents of the Israeli capital as well as pilgrims and tourists visiting one of the world's oldest cities.

At 80m below the surface, Jerusalem Binyanei HaUma will be one of the world's deepest main line stations when it opens to traffic in 2018. The 75,000m2 station is the terminus for the new 57km Tel Aviv - Jerusalem A1 link, which politicians and railway officials hope will draw some of Tel Aviv's commercial wealth back to the capital city.

Indeed with trains operating at a maximum speed of 160km/h, the new railway will reduce journey times between the two cities to just 28 minutes from 1h 23min at present on the Ottoman-era alignment of the existing line, allowing people living in Jerusalem to easily work in Tel Aviv and vice versa.

IMGP3920The station in Jerusalem will also be adjacent to the central bus station, and the city's existing light rail line and a future line, while the line will serve Ben Gurion International Airport, and five existing stations in Tel Aviv.

Construction on the project, which is budgeted at Shekels 7bn ($US 1.79bn), commenced in 2005, and despite some delays, most of the civil superstructure is now complete. Fitting out of tunnels and tracklaying is underway with the aim of completing construction by the end of December 2017. Line testing will then take place during the first quarter of 2018 with the line set to open at some point in the second quarter with three trains operating per hour per direction carrying 4000 passengers.

During IRJ's visit, workers were busy constructing the new station's platforms which will be linked via a five-storey escalator to a new station concourse. The station will feature two 300m-long platforms serving three tracks with capacity in the tunnel for train stabling.

The depth of the station tunnel is reflective of the topography in the region and efforts to avoid steep gradients. The line runs from sea level in Tel Aviv to around 800m above sea level in Jerusalem and begins to climb from around 100m above sea level approximately 30km from the city. Before reaching the city limits where it enters the 2.7km tunnel to the station, the railway will run on a 95m-high bridge, the tallest in Israel. In total the line will run in four dual-bore tunnels as well as the single-bore Jerusalem station tunnel accounting for 37km of the route, and on eight dual-span bridges with a total length of 3.5km, including a 1.25km bridge, the longest in the country.

Israel Railways is overseeing the project and it has emphasised localisation in contract awards. This is reflected in the tunnelling contracts with four awarded and in each a domestic Israeli company partnering with an established international player with the hope of helping these local companies to develop their own expertise. The project required three TBMs to construct the 3.6km, and 11.6km tunnel, the longest in Israel, with a combination of cut-and-cover and drill and blast used for the smaller tunnels. The tunnels utilise slab track with a concrete production plant set up to serve the project as well as the TBMs.

Environmental protection is a major concern for the project and IR has focused on minimising the impact of construction in the Nahal Yitla Valley, an area of outstanding natural beauty which is popular with walkers. Among the steps taken is restoring land around tunnel portals to the native fauna.

Galilee Valley

Fitting out and tracklaying is now well underway on the 23km Acre - Carmiel Line in the Galilee Valley in the north of Israel. This Shekels 2.8bn project will offer a boost to Haifa commuters living in towns in the area who are currently forced to drive to work by providing an accessible link to the railway network for the first time.

The line branches eastwards from the existing Coastal Line between Kiryat Motzkin and Acre station and will have two new stations at Moshav Ahihud and Carmiel. Unlike the other new line projects, management of construction is the responsibility of a third party, with IR the owner of infrastructure and operator of services. The project is managed by Etgar, with a consortium of Israeli contractors Lesico and Shikun U'Binui as well as DB Bahnbau awarded a $US 400m contract for the project. Lesico is responsible for track laying and fitting out the tunnel with 21 contractors in total working on the project and all collaborating with IR as the project progresses.

The major construction challenge is the 4.6km twin-bore Gilon tunnel under Mount Gilon in the mountainous region at the eastern end of the line. Work on the tunnel began in 2012 and 96% of the civil works are now complete with fitting out currently underway. System installation was also 30% finished when IRJ visited the site at the beginning of February, with tracklaying on the entire line 70% complete. Slab track is again being used in the tunnel with Sonneville, Switzerland, licensing its embedded LVT system.

The line will be the second in Israel to be electrified. However, initially it will operate under diesel traction. The tunnel is designed to ventilate fumes following the passage of trains, although a period of eight minutes will have to pass before it is safe to enter the tunnel. It is also fitted with a Scada system, which is able to detect potential problems, and CCTV.

Like the tunnels on the A1 Link, emergency crossovers to the adjacent tunnel are situated at 250m intervals along the line meaning that with a train length of 280m, any evacuation in the tunnel can be conducted without requiring passengers to walk for long distances. In addition, the track will feature a concrete slab between the rails allowing emergency vehicles to drive easily in the tunnel with an emergency access tunnel situated at approximately the midway point.

Work is on schedule, with testing and commissioning due to start in December and the contractors expecting to hand the line over to IR in April 2017. Two months of driver training will then take place, with the line due to enter service in June or July next year. However, this may not be the end of construction. Studies are also underway of an extension of the line to Kiryat Shmona and, while transport minister Mr Israel Katz has voiced his approval for the project, the government has yet to formally commit to funding it.

Also in the north of the country and providing a direct link to the Coastal Line is the 60km Valley Line, which is on course to open next year. The $US 1bn line mimicks the alignment of the 1050mm-gauge Ottoman and British colonial line, which was part of the Hedjaz railway, and closed in 1951.

The new line connects with the Coastal Line at Haifa Lev Hamifratz and will again offer a passenger service to residents cut off from the railway with five new stations. Among these is the terminus station at Beit Shee'an which will incorporate the old station structure. Others in the valley including Kfar-Yehoshua, Kfar-Baruch and Afula have a simple and contemporary design. As well as serving passengers the line will be a major freight route and will carry traffic direct from the port at Haifa to its eastern terminus close to Sheikh Hussain bridge over the River Jordan, with a view to connecting to a new line built by its neighbour in the future.

Construction packages for the project were divided into a dozen tenders which were announced and awarded in 2012, with Etgar, Lesico and DB Bahnbau also responsible for major work on this project. A tour of the valley revealed that much of the track laying work is now complete along with the station structures with a few track machines still conducting work on the line. Indeed the first trains are expected to use the new railway by the end of the year.