Miriam Berger is a Middle East based journalist with a focus on international news. She conducted research on the Cairo metro for a master's degree in Modern Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford University.
The $2-billion project will shorten the 37-mile commute between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv by more than half the current drive time when finally debuts in 2018. Until then, it’s still a headache for politicians and commuters.
Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are culturally quite different, but one thing currently connecting the two is a shared frustration over traffic, thanks to construction on a high-speed rail line.
The 7-billion Israeli Shekel ($2 billion) project is set to start operating by 2018. Once completed, the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem railway will shorten the 37-mile commute between the country’s political and economic hubs from an average of 75 minutes to a miraculous 28 minutes.
The train’s debut has been delayed by a host of factors, including financial and environmental concerns, as well as policies that prioritize cars and bureaucratic barriers and tensions between national and local actors.
Then there are the uniquely Israeli problems. Public infrastructure has often come second-tier to other national priorities—mainly military and security-related spending. It’s also faced opposition from the powerful ultra-Orthodox, which fought against having construction and eventual train operation occur on Saturdays, the Jewish day of rest.
The high-speed rail is one of the country’s biggest infrastructure projects ever. Politicians are positive it will increase economic opportunities in Jerusalem and reduce housing pressures on Tel Aviv, Israel's financial and tech center. The typical commute between the two cities is currently just over an hour. But for many Israelis, in a country about the size of New Jersey, it's considered a restricting and inconvenient schlep to be avoided whenever possible.
The Israeli government has been facing pressure to reduce the inter-city commute for decades, all while continuing to promote policies that prioritize the primacy of private cars. A 2013 study by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel reported, “Israel’s transportation is far behind that of similarly sized-countries” and “clearly inadequate to meet the needs of future growth.” According to the Taub Center, Israel’s roads are on average far more congested than those of other western countries. Gasoline prices are also higher in Israel than in most western countries, in large part due to taxes.
The report concludes with a call for “a change in the public policy that gives preference to private vehicle users over public transportation users… Ultimately, the current policy is harmful to economic efficiency and increases the inequality in society.”
For now, Israelis mainly travel between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv by private car or bus. The large public buses run by the Egged company (16 shekels, or $4.50 each way) are particularly popular among young people and soldiers, who ride for free. Then there is the sherut (service), or a shared mini bus, that leaves at any hour (for 24 shekels, or $6.75, and more after midnight and on the weekends). Most importantly, the sherut makes the trip on Shabbat when Egged buses shut down. There is already a train that goes between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but it’s old, slow, and often empty, as it stops in places that are inconvenient for the average commuter.
Still, it may seem surprising that it’s so difficult to travel between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, given Israel’s reputation for cutting-edge innovation. Politics, however, has a way of slowing the way forward down.
Part of the vision behind the high-speed train is for the Jerusalem side to connect with the city’s sleek-yet-controversial light rail. Running since 2011, the light rail has made it dramatically easier to navigate the city, cutting down on commute time and increasing access into various neighborhoods. Its tracks also cut across from the Palestinian east side of the city to the Jewish west side—a move that angered many Palestinians who saw the highly securitized train as another front in Israel’s land grab. (Israel controlled West Jerusalem from 1948-67 and then captured and annexed East Jerusalem in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, a move not recognized by the international community. Now much of the Palestinian east is under-resourced, with many services, including busing, privatized in the absence of an autonomous government.)
In and around Tel Aviv, a light rail is in the works that would connect its end of the high-speed line. Since Israel’s founding in 1948, the government has been considering various plans for building a subway system in Tel Aviv, according to the Jerusalem Post. Now, parts of the already congested city have become nearly impossible to navigate during rush hour due to the light rail’s construction. One provocative online video made by angry residents even proclaimed, “What Hezbollah and Hamas weren’t able to do, the light rail project will do… The destruction and complete paralysis of Tel Aviv.”
Geography Professor Yodan Rofe of Ben Gurion University of the Negev tells CityLab that part of the high-speed train’s controversy stems from inefficiencies in how public transportation is administered. "The process is so full of different political interests and jockeying both at the national and local government that you never know what the outcome would be,” Rofe says. Another Taub Center report agrees, calling for “the establishment of metropolitan transportation authorities or regions… as Transportation is administered today on the national level and this prevents more efficient management of the transportation system.”
Then there’s the perennially thorny issue facing Israeli commuters: what to do about Shabbat. About 80 percent of Israel’s eight million citizens are Jewish (the remaining 20 percent are Christian and Muslim) and much of the country shuts down during the Jewish Sabbath when work is, broadly speaking, prohibited. Friday night and Saturday are therefore prime time for construction on the high-speed rail, as Israel’s highways and roads are relatively empty. Instead, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered construction on the high-speed rail not to happen on Shabbat, a move meant to appease the ultra-orthodox who are a powerful voting block and part of his right-wing coalition. Once completed, the train also won’t be running on Shabbat—much to the anger of secular Israelis, who are a majority in more-liberal Tel Aviv.
"It's a major issue as if they want people to use public transportation they need to have it on Shabbat or else they [people] will buy a car, at least the majority of people who are secular,” says Geography and Economics Professor Eren Feitselson at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“It’s all internal politics,” he adds. “From time to time they [ultra-Orthodox] want to pick a fight, and so they look for something to pick a fight."
Public infrastructure in Israel has always had a security element in its planning and design due to enduring tensions with hostile neighbors. But today, some Israelis are frustrated that the government is only prioritizing roads and bus lines for Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, land which Palestinians also claim. "I think that definitely has had an impact on priorities,” says Yodan of the massive infrastructure works in the West Bank. He also cites projects like the separation barrier—which surrounds much of the Palestinian West Bank—and roads in the West Bank—some of which are reserved only for Jewish drivers—as part of shaping how, when, and where Israel prioritizes public works.
Others disagree, arguing that West Bank roads and Tel Aviv tracks are separate budgeting issues. Either way, the new high-speed train will dramatically cut the time and increase the connection between the two.
“It [the government] is investing in transport,” says Feitselson. “A lot. But the question is whether it’s being used right.”