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.


Here’s how we plant 2 billion more trees in the UK

A tree in Northallerton, North Yorkshire. Image: Getty.

The UK’s official climate advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), recently published a report outlining how to reduce the 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions that come from land use by two thirds by 2050. Alongside recommending cutting meat and dairy consumption by 20 per cent, the report calls for the annual creation of up to 50,000 hectares of broadleaf and conifer woodland for the next three decades. This would increase forest cover from 13 per cent to at least 17 per cent – a level not seen in Britain since before the Norman invasion.

Reforestation at that rate would mean creating roughly the area of the city of Leeds every year for the next three decades. At typical stocking densities of 1,500 stems per hectare, the ambition is to establish some 2.25 billion additional trees. Given that the UK, as with most of Europe, is in the grip of ash dieback, a disease likely to prove fatal for many millions of native ash trees, the scale of the challenge is massive.

On a crowded and intensively farmed island like Britain, unlocking a million and a half hectares of land will be no mean feat. But it’s not impossible – and is an unprecedented opportunity not only to tackle the climate crisis but also the biodiversity crisis that is every bit as detrimental to our wellbeing.

Trees and farms

One million and a half hectares is just 6 per cent of the mainland UK’s land area. To give some sense of perspective on this, 696,000 hectares of “temporary grassland” were registered in 2019. So if land supply is not the problem, what is? Often it’s cultural inertia. Farmers are firmly rooted to the land and perhaps understandably reluctant to stop producing food and instead become foresters. But the choice need not be so binary.

The intensification of agriculture has caused catastrophic declines in many species throughout the UK by reducing vast wooded areas and thousands of miles of hedgerows to small pockets of vegetation, isolating populations and making them more vulnerable to extinction.

Integrating trees with the farmed landscape delivers multiple benefits for farms and the environment. Reforestation doesn’t have to mean a return to the ecologically and culturally inappropriate single-species blocks of non-native conifers, which were planted en masse in the 1970s and 1980s. Incentivised under tax breaks to secure a domestic timber supply, many of the resulting plantations were located in places difficult or in some cases impossible to actually harvest.

Productive farmland needn’t be converted to woodland. Instead, that 4 per cent of land could be found by scattering trees more widely. After all, more trees on farmland is good for business. They prevent soil erosion and the run-off of pollutants, provide shade and shelter for livestock, a useful source of renewable fuel and year-round forage for pollinating insects.

The first tranche of tree planting could involve new hedgerows full of large trees, preferably with wide headlands of permanently untilled soils, providing further wildlife refuge.

Natural regeneration

Where appropriate, new woody habitats can be created simply by stopping how the land is currently used, such as by removing livestock. This process can be helped by scattering seeds in areas where seed sources are low. But patience is a virtue. If people can learn to tolerate less clipped and manicured landscapes, nature can run its own course.

A focus on deliberate tree planting also raises uncomfortable truths. Most trees are planted with an accompanying stake to keep them upright and a plastic shelter that protects the sapling from grazing damage. All too often, these shelters aren’t retrieved. Left to the elements, they break down into ever smaller pieces, and can be swept into rivers and eventually the ocean, where they threaten marine wildlife. Two billion tree shelters is a lot of plastic.

The main reason for using tree shelters at all is because the deer population in the UK is so high that in many places, it is all but impossible to establish new trees. This also has serious implications for existing woodland, which is prevented from naturally regenerating. In time, these trees will age and die, threatening the loss of the woodland itself. Climate change, pests and pathogens and the lack of a coordinated, centrally supported approach to deer management means the outlook for the UK’s existing treescape is uncertain at best.

An ecologically joined-up solution would be to reintroduce the natural predators of deer, such as lynx, wolves, and bears. Whether rewilding should get that far in the UK is still the subject of debate. Before that, perhaps the focus should be on providing the necessary habitat, rich in native trees.

A positive response would be to implement the balanced recommendations, made almost a decade ago in a government review, of creating more new habitat, improving what’s already there, and finding ways to link it together. Bigger, better, and more connected habitats.

But the UK is losing trees at increasing rates and not just through diseases. The recent removal of Victorian-era street trees in Sheffield and many other towns and cities is another issue to contend with. As the climate warms, increasing urban temperatures will mean cities need shade from street trees more than ever.

Trees aren’t the environmental panacea that the politicians might have people believe – even if they do make for great photo opportunities – but we do need more of them. Efforts to expand tree cover are underway across the world and the UK will benefit from contributing its share. Hitting the right balance – some commercial forestry, lots of new native woodland and millions of scattered trees – will be key to maximising the benefits they bring.

Nick Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Conservation, Nottingham Trent University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.