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Jewish Journal

A chosen rail line?

by Joel Epstein

October 26, 2011 | 7:27 pm

Jerusalem’s new light rail line covers an eight-mile route from a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem through Palestinian neighborhoods  to downtown and Mount Herzl in the West.

Jerusalem’s new light rail line covers an eight-mile route from a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem through Palestinian neighborhoods to downtown and Mount Herzl in the West.

In a city where nothing ever seems to come easy, the arrival this summer of Jerusalem’s long-delayed light-rail Red Line was seen by some as nothing short of a miracle. At many points over the past 10-plus years of construction, it looked as though the Messiah would pass through the Old City’s Golden Gate before the train might arrive. And like many good land-use battles in Jerusalem, this one featured national political aspirations, terrorism concerns and the secular-religious divide, as well as conflicting views of fiscal and corporate accountability and arguments over the best transit solutions for a culturally and religiously diverse city of 800,000.

Still, as I saw on a recent trip, the Holy City somehow achieved the opening of its first light-rail line a lot sooner than Los Angeles is realizing a subway to its Westside. Though I came too early to witness the line’s opening, during my visit I watched the train being tested, and I even stepped aboard a car before being shooed off by a grumpy conductor.

Being in the place that is home to three of the world’s great religions, I got to thinking about how conflict and different world views can stand in the way of public transit improvements like Jerusalem’s Red Line and L.A.’s Westside subway extension. Though I am no expert on Jerusalem, the sight of the train crawling down Jaffa Road left me wondering what parallels there might be between Jerusalem’s and Los Angeles’ struggles to bring rail to these cities.

The two transit battles both pit those who view their city as ill suited to trains against those who feel trains must have a place in growing cities. Also common to both battles are vocal adversaries of public transportation who don’t ride the buses and trains that they rail against. One certainty in such projects is that by the time the work is completed, few residents of either stripe are happy about the costs, delays and disruption caused by the construction. As if on cue, Jerusalem’s infant rail system has already seen its first strike by operators seeking pay equity with bus drivers. The 30-hour strike, which came during the busy period of Sukkot, has since ended with an agreement between the workers and the consortium that runs the rail service.

Jerusalem’s eight-mile light rail line, which opened Aug. 19, runs from the Jewish settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev, in East Jerusalem, through the Palestinian neighborhoods of Beit Hanina and Shu’afat to downtown and Mount Herzl in the West. This means it passes through land that came under Israeli jurisdiction as a result of the 1967 Six-Day War. Further complicating the process, there have also been efforts by the city’s ultra-Orthodox Jews to create cars separating men and women. And for many, the Jerusalem project confirmed some fears that the disruptive construction process would be fatal to businesses along Jaffa Road, the narrow thoroughfare that runs through the mostly Jewish West Jerusalem to the Old City’s Jaffa Gate.

In Los Angeles, some have kvetched and even sued over the use of an established rail right-of-way running through Cheviot Hills for the new Expo Line, which is nearing completion, yet Los Angeles’ battles pale in comparison to Jerusalem’s. Even the vocal battle over tunneling under Beverly Hills High School, a plan that got the backing of a panel of engineers and seismic experts on Oct. 19, has been muted by comparison with a project that runs through neighborhoods some residents do not recognize as Israeli.

So, is Jerusalem’s Red Line a cursed effort at improving mobility in a traffic-choked city? Or will the project bring good things to all residents of East and West Jerusalem? Or could there have been a better, more cost-effective alternative?

In Jerusalem, some have complained that the Red Line should have run from Mount Scopus to Givat Ram, the main campus of the Hebrew University, where it might have attracted more riders than the current route, including many students and those visiting the city’s major hospitals. Indeed, West Jerusalem resident Ilan Jospe argues that the line mostly benefits people who live near the route. The train also took lanes of traffic from narrow roads that were hard to navigate to begin with.  

Ahmad Fahoum, an East Jerusalem resident, is not enthusiastic about the train. He questions the cost, the political message sent by the route, and whether Jewish and Arab residents used to riding Egged (Israeli) and Arab buses as well as sherutim (shared shuttle vans), taxis and private cars around the city will embrace the limited service of a single line, which is a slow train, for now — the Red Line’s trip from end to end takes 65 minutes rather than the originally scheduled 42 minutes, though that will change with improvements. He also wonders who got rich off the project, which was built by an international consortium of companies. Like others, Fahoum noted the lower cost of offering bus service, including dedicated-lane bus rapid transit (BRT) to speed commuters through congested parts of the divided city. And, one need not go far in Jerusalem to find proof that BRTs can be built faster and cheaper than rail. Jerusalem’s first BRT line, a north/south project, was completed some time ago to act as a feeder connection to the Red Line.

In an Aug. 17 article in The Guardian newspaper, critics claimed the project was “part of a deliberate plan to link the East Jerusalem settlement [of Pisgat Ze’ev] to the city centre, [to] consolidate Israel’s grip on the eastern part of the city that Palestinians want as a capital of their future state, and present Jerusalem as an undivided city.”

As for construction of a second line, dubbed the Blue Line, both Jospe and Fahoum hope it will never happen, given that the Red Line took more than 10 years to build and reportedly cost the municipality $1.1 billion. Nevertheless, Jerusalem has plans to build eight light rail and BRT lines, with the first new service planned for Ein Kerem (serving Hadassah Hospital) in the southwest and Neve Ya’akov in the northeast. Other lines serving Neve Ya’akov, Kiryat Menachem, and the Hebrew University campuses at Givat Ram and Mount Scopus are also planned.

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