PACKED park-and-ride stations across Israel Railways' (IR) network, where late comers during the morning peak often have to get creative when trying to find somewhere to park, show the already intense demand for IR's services. And with traffic congestion continuing to choke cities across the country, this demand is only going to increase.
While new line projects will bring more people into proximity of the railway network, electrification and the rollout of ETCS Level 2 will deliver the improvements in performance and capacity required to effectively serve by 2020 an expected 31.5% more passengers than use the network today. But what is currently happening on the ground to prepare for this transition?
In a corner of the Kishon heavy-maintenance depot in Haifa, work is already underway to upgrade IR's fleet of push-pull double-deck Bombardier coaches for electric services. Retrofitting work on the first vehicle began on January 5 2015, and concluded with a special ceremony on January 20 2016. Mr Deeb Favag, director of operations and maintenance at Kishon, says the first coach served as a "learning-on-the-job" exercise, where engineers, employed by Bombardier, became familiar with what is required for the entire fleet of 294 vehicles.
A major element of the work is upgrading the coaches for suitability for 160km/h operation compared with 140km/h at present. This includes reinforcing the car body to redistribute impact forces in the event of a collision as well as renewing the fire system for operation in tunnels on the new lines, and enhancing the brakes. Inspections and dynamic tests also take place at the facility.
Work on the second coach is underway and is expected to conclude in May, while work on the third was due to start on February 21 to conclude in June. At this point 40 Bombardier engineers will join the project rising to 100 in July when they will work in two-three daily shifts with the goal of completing a single coach every 40 days and the entire fleet by 2020.
Of course, IR's fleet does not just comprise the Bombardier double deckers, and Favag says negotiations are continuing with Siemens about developing a work package to convert the fleet of 118 single-deck push-pull coaches for electric operation. He adds that a decision is yet to be made on how the vacant power car space will be used on the Bombardier sets and work on this will not start until 2021 when the electrification programme is complete.
Introduction of electric services and the expansion of the fleet will require enhanced maintenance facilities. Currently 62 Traxx AC electric locomotives are on order from Bombardier, with another 72 double-deck coaches suitable for electric operation already delivered, and a tender for 60 double-deck EMUs set for launch soon. As a result, plans are afoot to double Kishon's capacity by adding new sheds equipped to maintain electric rolling stock and locomotives as well as tracks for stabling. Favag says this will increase Kishon's staff levels from 145 at present to 350, with staff working in shifts instead of days, and both heavy maintenance of all vehicles and light maintenance of electric stock taking place at the facility.
Kishon is the heavy maintenance facility for the north of Israel with a new facility at Be'er Sheva providing services for the south. The current emptiness of this facility hints at a much busier future as it takes on more and more maintenance activities.
In contrast at Lod, a key interchange on the southern passenger network and the site of a major light maintenance depot, the site is bustling with activity.
The head of maintenance and operations - south in IR's rolling stock division, Mr Michah Hercberg, faces the substantial challenge of managing maintenance of trains which have literally outgrown the British-era facility. This is reflected in two of the eight cars poking out from the end of the shed which is designed for six cars. Shunting is also an issue with the longer trains having to use the busy main line in order to reposition for refuelling and cleaning, or stabling.
As a result another substantial expansion is taking place with work on laying foundations underway and demolition of much of the existing facility due to begin as IRJ went to press. The new depot will have three 200m sheds and one 250m shed designed to accommodate electric rolling stock and additional stabling facilities, which Hercberg says will become an increasingly pertinent issue as IR expands its fleet. However, some of the maintenance work currently carried out at Lod will transfer to Be'er Sheva.
Hercberg says "management, management, management" is critical to the success of the facility, which he describes as consisting of a series of islands, and he says the biggest challenge is having sufficient staffing levels. "They are our most expensive asset and to hire more people you have to get government approval which takes time and is not always straightforward," he says. "You also need to make sure you are getting the right people who can do the job."
Improving skills and retraining existing staff is another key consideration, particularly as the railway introduces new equipment. Overlooking the depot and Lod station is IR's training centre, which was responsible for providing 23,000 days of training in 2015 in 35 advanced and professional courses. This is set to increase by a further 15% in 2016 and to meet this demand, IR is adding a second floor to the centre which will add eight classrooms to the centre's existing 10.
IR's CEO Mr Boaz Tzafrir says that with only limited in-house experience and knowledge, the centre is playing a key role in equipping the railway's staff for the future. He says that IR purchased syllabi from Birmingham and Aachen universities, which were updated to Hebrew and tailored to IR's operating conditions. "This centre has changed all of the methods of training and education in our company, which was very, very poor in the past." Tzafrir says. "Today the prestige of being a teacher or trainer at the centre is the same as being a trainer in the airforce."
Simulation plays a big role in the work at the centre, particularly for training drivers, with IR deserting its previous progressive approach of only allowing technicians to qualify to become freight locomotive drivers who in turn could progress to drive passenger trains. This process took around five to seven years and was increasingly unsuited to a passenger-driven network with IR beginning to suffer from a lack of drivers.
The new driver training programme comprises around a year of training with IR utilising innovations in training technology to assist its trainees, with 60 entering the programme in 2016. These include RouTrainer, an advanced route training system which it developed in partnership with B-Design 3D, Israel.
With all drivers expected to be able to drive the entire network, the tool familiarises them with the network and its intricacies by offering the user a driver's cab video of any stretch of line on the network simply by clicking between two points on the system map. The interface also includes the line's topography as well as a track plan and map and is estimated to cut the resources required to train drivers by half.
Similarly IR has developed a series of books for both drivers and conductors to troubleshoot issues with any of the rolling stock and locomotives used on the network. These pocket-sized rolodex guides are based on similar materials used by the Israeli Air Force and are designed to reduce time in the event of failures by offering easy to follow instructions which minimise calls from staff to central control, the previous method of handling a problem. IR is in the process of converting the guides so they are each accessible via a tablet or smartphone app. This will also enable IR to easily update the information when required.
The centre is also heavily engaged in preparing IR's staff to use its future technologies. Three subdivisions have been created - electrification, signalling, and the A1 Link - to consider what specific training is needed.
"In three to four years we are going to experience a major technical and operational revolution here," says Ms Naama Berkovitch, IR's organisational readiness for technological changes manager. "The projects of course are looking at it from an engineering and project management point of view, but we're looking at what we need to do from a training point-of-view.
"For example, Jerusalem Binyanei HaUma station on the A1 link is a very different station from anything we have already. The average size of a station is 5000m2, HaUma is 75,000m2, it also has five levels. So we are considering what we need to train our staff to use this facility effectively."
It's a similar story for electric locomotives, where acceleration and braking performance will be very different from current stock, coupled with the introduction of ETCS and GSM-R.
The ETCS tender might have just got underway but Berkovitch has already established working relationships with Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) and Spanish passenger operator Renfe and infrastructure manager Adif. This has involved looking closely at their respective approaches to training and adapting it to an Israeli context. "We hope that in one to one-and-a-half months we will be ready to start the recruitment process," she says.
Another 200m or so up the track at Lod cranes stand over IR's new headquarters. As well as management offices, which are currently located at Tel Aviv central station, the operations control centre, which is at Haifa Hof HaKarmel station, will move into the new building albeit one to two years after it opens later this year.
The developments at Lod give a snapshot of the modernisation process currently sweeping the railway and IR's attempts to react while continuing to run an efficient service. However, there are still reminders of its past.
At the depot, Alstom engineers are subcontracted to maintain IR's fleet of IC3 DMUs. The work takes place adjacent to IR's activities but at the insistence of the union, a wall was built to separate Alstom and IR employees. This is a far cry from the days of union demands restricting activities and a management thought process which stifled investment and progress in Israel. But it does provide food for thought that while the railway is now entering a new and unprecedented era of infrastructure and technological development, some things will probably never completely change.