Is Israel on the verge of a rail revolution?

A vehicle on the Tel Aviv Light Rail network. Image: Ynhockey/Wikimedia Commons.

In December, regular services began on the first high speed rail line from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The news is emblematic both of Israel’s growing rail infrastructure, as well as the problems that have dogged public transport in the country.

The double-decker high-speed line is an engineering feat, encompassing eight bridges, of up to one hundred metres tall, and five tunnels of a collective length of 38km. Most importantly, the 30 minute commute is nearly twice as fast as an equivalent bus journey.

The route also stops at Ben Gurion International Airport, meaning that for the first-time international visitors can travel directly from the airport to either Tel Aviv or Jerusalem without having to battle Israel’s notorious traffic via shuttle bus or taxi.

The Tel Aviv-Jerusalem line is representative of the new wave of public transport infrastructure to be built in Israel in recent years. The Jerusalem terminus of the line, at Yitzchak Navon Station, is across the road from the central tram station: the first line in Jerusalem’s first sleek, if controversial, light rail system opened in 2011. Two further tram lines are currently under construction and scheduled to open by 2025.

The Viaduct over the Valley of Ayalon on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem rail line. Image: DMY/Wikimedia Commons.

Meanwhile, after decades of plans for a metro system, construction on the Tel Aviv light rail system finally began on the first line in 2011. The red line is due to open in 2021 and contains ten stations along its 25km route. When operational it is expected to accommodate 70 million passengers a year and remove 50,000 cars from Tel Aviv’s streets – a substantial number for a city of only 450,000.

Some 3.9 million people live in the greater Tel Aviv metropolitan area, 44 per cent of the country’s population, and two further lines are also being built to connect cities such as Rishon Lezion and Herzylia to central Tel Aviv. The green line will have 62 stations, with annual ridership estimated at 65 million, while the purple line will have 45 stations for 60 million passengers. Both are scheduled to open over the next decade.

Despite local anger at the disruption that the construction is causing in parts of Tel Aviv, the light rail project is vital to safeguard the city’s continued functionality. Israel’s population is scheduled to double in the next 30 years, and much of that will be concentrated in the already high-density economic centre of Tel Aviv. In 2017 the government announced a target of building one million new housing units in the Tel Aviv area by 2040.

The opening of multiple new rail lines and light rail systems, however, marks a sharp change in public policy that for decades has under-invested in transport infrastructure. Analysis from the Taub Center shows that Israel spends less on transport than other OECD states. Other small OECD countries having three and a half times more kilometres travelled by rail per person than Israel. In addition, until the 1980s, investment in railways focused on cargo trains for heavy industry rather than passenger usage, which only increased reliance for commuters on road usage.

The spate of new construction in rail infrastructure is not without its problems. The aforementioned Tel Aviv-Jerusalem line opened 11 years late and four times over budget, while there are also doubts about whether the Tel Aviv light rail system will open on time.

In addition, last year the state comptroller released a damning report accusing the transport ministry of mismanagement and warped priorities. The lion’s share of transport spending was dedicated to car usage, the report claimed, while the ministry failed to adequately invest in rail leading to overcrowding on the rail network. The then-Transport Minister, who held the role from 2009-19, disputed the report, and has since been promoted to Foreign Minister.

Nonetheless, the report also emphasises the negative effect of Israel’s overreliance on cars, with the country having the worst traffic in the OECD – with knock on effects on GDP as well as noise and air pollution. While a healthy scepticism should be held over the delivery of rail infrastructure projects, that Israel is now committing to large scale public transport infrastructure can only be welcomed – if the state can deliver on its promised projects.


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