2017 was a momentous year for Israel Railways (IR). After five years of construction, the 23km Acre - Carmiel line opened, expanding the network to the northern interior of the country. Some of the railway’s major projects, notably the new 57km A1 Link between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, also made significant progress, while IR placed a number of important rolling stock orders.
“The railway’s ambition is to increase its share of mass transit and increase passenger traffic by 8-10% annually,” says Mr Shahar Ayalon, IR’s general manager. “The forecast for the end of 2017 is for the railway to have carried 64 million passengers during the year, with a daily average of 140,000. By adding additional track capacity, and with the new lines which we plan to open, the forecast for 2040 is for this number to reach 340 million.”
The 2017 figure compares with 59.5 million passengers carried in 2016, which was a 13% increase over 2015. Some of this additional ridership is attributable to the Acre - Carmiel Line, which has transported half a million passengers since it opened on September 20. The line is currently served by 18 trains per day between Carmiel and Haifa, completing the journey in 34 minutes, while eight trains also travel to Be’er Sheva. IR expects the service to transport 1.7 million passengers in 2018.
Similarly, the 60km Valley Line from Haifa Lev Hamifratz to Beit She’an opened on November 8 2016, and has carried more than 2 million passengers. The line has four stations and is also providing a freight connection to a new terminal at Beit-She’an, close to the Jordanian border. Ayalon reports that the freight link is not yet profitable but IR is working to increase its attractiveness.
2018 is also set to be an equally eventful year for IR as work reaches a conclusion on the A1 link, IR’s blue-ribbon project. The line is set to cut journey times between the country’s two most important cities to 28 minutes from 1h 23min at present.
Ayalon says slab track laying is nearly complete as is construction of Yitzhak Navon Station in Jerusalem, the line’s underground terminus. “These works will last another four months and when completed test runs will start,” he says. “If successful, commercial operation will begin in 2018. However, there is not yet a definite start date.”
The A1 Link is Israel’s first electrified line and it is also sparking a network-wide electrification programme. Trials using a 160km/h Bombardier Traxx unit under 25kV ac 50Hz wires commenced on a 12km section of the A1 link in December and further work is underway to electrify the 8km section from Tel Aviv to Hertzliya on the Haifa main line and the 8km branch between Anava junction and Modi’in Central. However, the overall programme is behind schedule.
“Electrification is currently four months late and we expect the contractor, SEML, to accelerate the works,” Ayalon says. “The railway is also bringing in temporary transformers in order to return the programme to its original schedule.”
The first Traxx unit was delivered in August and is part of a fleet of 62 units, which will operate with double-deck coaches in push-pull mode. IR ordered another 33 Twindexx Vario coaches from Bombardier in May, taking its fleet to 462.
In addition, IR placed a $US 1bn order with Siemens in September to supply and maintain 60 double-deck EMUs. Each train will feature a single-deck driving trailer at each end and either two or four double-deck cars.
A four-car train will seat around 750 passengers, while a six-car set will have seats for around 1000. Delivery is expected to begin in 2020.
Further improvements to network performance and capacity are expected following the rollout of ERTMS. Tenders have been published both for the line-side and onboard elements, and Ayalon hopes the system will be operational by 2020.
IR is similarly striving to improve its freight network. The railway carries more than 9.7 million tonnes of freight per year and Ayalon says IR is working to enhance connections from the ports of Haifa and Ashdod. It is also building new container terminals and wagon maintenance facilities and working to develop new sidings in cooperation with the private sector after the number fell from 230 to just 20. “This hurts our ability to increase traffic volumes,” Ayalon says.
In the long-term, IR is looking to develop a new line to Eilat on the Red Sea coast. The project is currently at the preliminary design stage and no timetable has been set for construction. The railway is similarly developing the Lod - Hadera Eastern Rail project, which will revive the Ottoman-British colonial era infrastructure. The Shekels 2bn ($US 567m) scheme aims to relieve congestion on the Coastal Line and improve links to central and eastern Israel. “The line is at an advanced stage of design and within two years we expect to publish tenders,”Ayalon says. “We plan to open the line in 2023.”
These projects are key elements of IR’s 2040 Strategic Plan, which outlines investment of Shekels 123.6bn to double the size of the network from 1232km to 2572km by 2040. The plan was released on June 8, and at the time, Israeli transport minister Mr Israel Katz proclaimed that “Israel is undergoing a transportation revolution.” It is indeed an unprecedented time for the country’s railway, which is set to celebrate further milestones in 2018.
IRJ’s Israel correspondent, Jeremaya Goldberg, contributed to this report