THE route from the coast of the Mediterranean Sea up to Jerusalem has always been an important one. Jaffa, known as the port of Jerusalem during the Ottoman period, has acted as a gateway for both travellers and goods travelling to and from the holy city, including many on pilgrimages. However, the route from sea level up to Jerusalem has always been difficult, with the passage along the road desribed as “extremely difficult, even for beasts of burden” before it was upgraded by Ibrahim Pasha, first Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, in the early 1800s.

Before Jaffa became part of the newly-founded neighbouring city of Tel Aviv, Jaffa and Jerusalem were connected by a metre-gauge railway at the end of the 19th century, which was later replaced by a standard-gauge line. However, the route still required a 1h 18min journey time to travel the 86km line due to the tortuous alignment.

Now, the Israeli government is looking to improve transport across the country, with a strong focus on the development of rail transport. The most significant improvement to date has been the construction of the 57km A1 line linking Tel Aviv with Jerusalem, which opened in 2018. The 160km/h double-track electrified line cut journey times between the two cities to 28 minutes, using bridges and five tunnels, including the country’s longest at 11.5km, to bypass much of the terrain that has impacted travel on the route in the past. Jerusalem’s Yitzhak Navon railway station, which sits 80m underground at the line’s eastern terminus, also doubles as a bomb shelter with capacity for 5000 people.

IR awarded Sociedad Española de Montajes Industriales (Semi), Spain, a design-build-maintain contract in December 2015 for the country’s electrification programme. The contract covers 1080 single track-km (420 route-km) at 25kV 50Hz ac, and includes design and construction of 14 substations as well as catenary and control systems.

Electrification of the A1, Hertzeliya - Navon, Hasharon - Ashkelon, Modi’in - Navon, and Tel Aviv - Ganot - Lod Depot lines has now been completed, along with Ashkelon depot 1 and Lod depot. Work is currently underway to electrify the Binyamina - Netanya, Netanya - Hertzeliya and Lod - Rehovot sections of the Binyamina - Rehovot line, along with Ashkelon depot 2.

“We are now working on electrifying 1000km of track, and we have finished more than 500km,” says IR head of electrification, Mr Avi Zalman. “And we have a decision from the government to accelerate the electrification project.”

Israel is also undertaking a Shekels 2.5bn ($US 780m) ERTMS project covering 625km of existing lines as well as 255km of new lines. The programme is split into three elements: Alstom is delivering onboard equipment for 192 trains with an option to fit an additional 34 trains under a contract awarded in December 2018; Thales is delivering trackside infrastructure installations while Nokia and Motorola are installing GSM-R across the network under a Shekels 350m contract signed in November 2017.

As of April, ETCS Level 2 has been installed and is in the final stages of testing on the following lines:

  • Hertzeliya - Jerusalem Navon
  • Ganot - Lod
  • Teufa west - Lod
  • Daniel - Modi’in, and
  • Modi’in - Jerusalem Navon.

Detailed planning is underway to install ETCS on all lines north from Hertzeliya and south from Lod, with installation of lineside equipment starting at some stations.

This infrastructure upgrade is part of a wider push by the Israeli government to improve rail services and increase capacity across the network. This is being achieved through a three-pronged approach, explains Zalman, who is also responsible for the on-board element of the ETCS rollout. The first is improving the skills of staff across the company; the second is increasing capacity on the existing network through the electrification and ETCS rollouts and the purchase of new rolling stock; and the third is by ensuring a high availability of rolling stock through the implementation of new maintenance systems.

This led to IR publishing a tender in March 2016 for a fleet of 160km/h double-deck EMUs. The tender called for the supply and maintenance of 60 25kV 50Hz ac regional trains, which could be supplied as either four-car double-deck sets, or a combination of double and single-deck cars, with a maximum of two single-deck cars per train. The tender envisaged a fleet of four and six-car trains capable of operating in multiple, with options to extend the sets to five or seven cars if required.

“We are now working on electrifying 1000km of track, and we have finished more than 500km And we have a decision from the government to accelerate the electrification project.”

Avi Zalman, IR head of electrification

Bids for the contract were submitted by Alstom, Bombardier, Hitachi Rail Italy, Siemens, Škoda Transportation, and Stadler Rail. Siemens was named as preferred bidder in September 2017 and signed a contract with IR worth €760m in March 2018 to supply up to 60 Desiro HC double-deck EMUs, with a firm order for 24 trains comprising 18 six-car sets and six four-car sets. The contract also included the construction of a maintenance depot in Ashkelon, as well as 15 years’ maintenance for the first 24 units, with the total contract worth €900m.

The first 1435mm-gauge Desiro HC trains were delivered in November 2020, with four-car and six-car sets arriving at the port of Ashdod. The train’s traction equipment produces 4.8MW at the wheel rim, giving a maximum speed of 160km/h and an acceleration rate of up to 1.1m/s². So far, 19 have been delivered and delivery of the remaining five is due to be completed this year. The trains entered service on the line between Herzliya, to the north of Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem in December 2021, replacing locomotive-hauled Bombardier double-deck Twindexx Vario coaches which are being moved to other routes.

Before entering service, the trains are required to receive a technical permit to operate (TPTO), before driver training and other tests are completed to receive a permit to operate (PTO) from the Ministry of Transport. Siemens and IR completed the certification required to operate in multiple in March, with this due to be introduced following the full electrification of the Binyamina - Ashkelon line in June.

“It’s a different concept compared with a normal double-deck,” explains Siemens Israel CEO, Mr Zahi Golan. “You can see from the outside that only the middle cars are double deck and the ones at the end are single deck with all the electrical equipment placed above. That gives us room in the double-deck section to put more passengers.”

Despite being shorter than the previous route, the A1 line is still challenging with the tunnels and a maximum gradient of up to 3% as the line works its way up from sea level to Jerusalem which sits at an elevation of 754m. Railway tunnelling is relatively new in Israel. The A1 link’s tunnels follow construction of the 4.6km Gilon tunnel on the Acre - Carmiel line, which opened in September 2017, and Zalman says IR took this into account when setting the technical specifications for the new trains.

The trains are based on those supplied by Siemens for Germany’s Rhine-Ruhr Express (RRX) project under a €1.7bn contract awarded in March 2015. Zalman says the train is around “90% compliant” with Europe’s TSI standards, but there were some modifications required from the RRX fleet, including ensuring the trains can operate in a temperature range of -25˚C to 45˚C.

The depot in Ashkelon is similar to the one built in Dortmund to serve the
Rhine-Rhur Express services, and is entirely paper-free. Photo: Siemens

“First of all, we have very high humidity, so you need to design your system to operate in a different humidity from the trains running in Germany,” he says. “Our temperature is high, and in this case the air-conditioning system becomes a very important system.” To combat this, Siemens installed a more powerful system to better control the interal temperature in the fleet.

This is echoed by Siemens Desiro HC Israel project manager, Mr Miguel Ferreira. “Israel is a small country, but you have everything,” he says. “You go up to the north - there’s hills and it’s raining, but you go down to the south and it’s kind of a desert, and then between them you’re close to the sea. That sounds nice, but it’s a challenge for a train as the salty air gets everywhere. So this train is in a small country, but it sees everything.”

IR also adopts a different operating model compared with Europe, with the conductor onboard responsible for the train instead of the driver. To adapt to this, additional facilities such as communications equipment had to be installed.

Zalman says the decision to move away from using locomotive-hauled coaches towards fixed-length EMUs was made to provide more flexibility when transitioning between peak and off-peak periods. He says the trains can operate in multiple during peak periods, with single sets operating to different destinations off-peak.

The four-car sets are currently operating on the Tel Aviv - Jerusalem line, but will ultimately be replaced with six-car trains. Siemens and IR are also exploring ways to exercise the option to introduce another double-deck coach into the trains to create five and seven-car units.

The trains are equipped with Siemens’ Trainguard ETCS on-board system alongside Israel’s PZB national train protection system, and also feature automatic couplers. The lower levels in the double-deck cars feature step-free access, improving access for passenger with limited mobility and those in wheelchairs, as well as passengers with bulky baggage, bikes, or strollers. Half the area in the end power cars is step-free. The relocation of equipment compartments and switchgear cabinets beneath the train or above the end car also increases the space available in the passenger areas.

However, customer satisfaction has been undermined by the disparity between the 710mm-high platforms at some stations and the 910mm-high floors on the trains, while passengers have also complained that some tables are too small, although these were supplied according to the specifications set by IR. The tables are due to be replaced with larger tables, while IR has plans to increase platform heights at some stations.

The train also features a passenger counting system, while the onboard passenger information system is dynamic, and in future can be connected to the system on the station platforms as well as a mobile app.

“People can use their mobile to see where the train is and which train they need to catch, what route it will take and what platform they need to be on,” Zalman says. “They can also see where to stand, because it’s not enough to have a lot of space for passengers, you need to take the people to where the space is. This decreases the time people need to board the train, and this then improves the timetable and means you can run more trains.”

While the trains were manufactured in Germany, the contract called for a local element. Siemens held events to meet local suppliers, with OSG, Polirit, Amphenol and Aharon Yosef eventually selected to supply components such as seats and windows. Aharon Yosef provided the metal casings used for the electrical cabinets and roof skirts, with the level of quality of the components leading Siemens to extend its collaboration with the company to begin supplying the materials for other Desiro HC projects outside Israel.

Maintenance systems

Zalman says that during the specification period for the fleet, IR focused heavily on deliverability, availability, maintenance and safety of the trains. IR went through the train system by system with Siemens to ensure each could run for as long as possible before requiring maintenance.

The contract calls for 96.5% availability. To achieve this, the train is equipped with sensors that monitor the status of the components, transmitting this data back to the workshop in real-time to allow the engineers to detect and pre-empt failures, order spare parts ahead of time, and organise maintenance schedules around operation.

This data is processed through the Railigent maintenance management system at the maintenance control centre in Haifa, and is also available to Siemens’ engineers in Germany. This allows a longer maintenance cycle than usual, with the trains only requiring maintenance every 40,000km or approximately three months, instead of the monthly maintenance cycle usually adopted by IR.

However, this new digital connectivity posses additional risks due to the cybersecurity issues that are particularly heightened by Israel’s security situation. “A lot of knowledge needs to go to Siemens’ IT system and back to Israel and you need to protect that information,” Zalman says. “We put a lot of equipment on this train that can protect the information but also make it available for our maintenance people.”

The critical train control systems that provide braking and acceleration are also designed to be cybersecure, meaning that even if the system was hacked it would be impossible to compromise the safety of the train.

As the Desiro HC trains are the first EMUs in Israel, much of the operational and maintenance knowledge has had to be passed on from German engineers.

“We had to hire new people that sometimes don’t know anything about trains and teach them what is required,” Golan says. “We have a lack of electricians… they’re not easy to find in Israel because there is a lot of demand, not only in the railway industry but everywhere.”

This is also the first time IR has contracted a third party to undertake fleet maintenance, which has also been a learning curve for the operator.


The contract included the construction of a new depot in Ashkelon, the first in Israel to be fully electric while all systems are digital instead of paper-based.

“This depot is more or less a copy of the depot that is in Dortmund that serves the RRX,” Golan says. “It’s a bit smaller, but with more or less the same functionalities.”

The depot has three elevated tracks where preventive and corrective maintenance can be carried out, with a total track length of 820m. The 7900m² depot features an underfloor wheel lathe to reprofile wheels, and integrated track bridges for fast wheelset changes.

All tracks are equipped with movable working platforms, nicknamed “flying carpets,” which allows work to be done at any level. The system also allows different types of trains to be maintained in future without needing to reconfigure the workshop, and also allows the windows to be replaced without the need for a special system as in other depots.

“This depot is more or less a copy of the depot that is in Dortmund that serves the RRX. “It’s a bit smaller, but with more or less the same functionalities.”

Zahi Golan, Siemens Israel CEO

The depot also features a continuous catenary system that can fold out of the way, a pre-cleaning pit in front of the hall, and a multifunctional service area at the south end of the main hall, which is covered with several cranes with a load capacity of up to 12.5 tonnes.

The east side of the main hall also contains special component workshops for toilets, electrical and mechanical maintenance activities and storage areas, along with office areas and social rooms.

The construction of the depot wasn’t without its challenges. The site is located 13km from the edge of the Gaza Strip, with rockets periodically fired from this area towards Israel. While these are usually intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome system, the site still has five inbuilt bomb shelters and all visitors are given a safety briefing that explains how to react in the event of the rocket alarm sounding.

“Most of the time it is quiet,” Zalman says. “But of course when designing this workshop, we had to take into consideration that during operation some rockets might fly, and we need to protect our people.”

This situation reflects both the unique challenges of operating a railway in Israel as well as the significant progress made in recent years, with more on the horizon as further options from the framework agreement for 60 trains are considered. Their delivery and entry into service marks a new period in the country, marking a stark contrast with the routes of old.