Already 10 years late, the new, $2 billion electrified link between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv was finally due to begin passenger service later this month. But local media reports suggest that even that date looks optimistic.
Originally slated to open in 2008, the project has been plagued by delays. A running joke asked which would arrive sooner, the new train or the Messiah.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to have tired of waiting and will ride a special service from Jerusalem to Ben Gurion Airport on Thursday.
Once completed, it will be the first electric railway line in the country. Double-decker trains will max out at a top speed of 160 kph (100 mph) — fairly leisurely by international standards but nonetheless reducing the commute between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to less than 30 minutes.
There is already a rail link between the two cities — but the 126-year-old line, built as the Jaffa to Jerusalem railway by the Ottomans, takes an hour and 40 minutes. It’s a route of great scenic beauty, but not exactly convenient for commuters.
It’s not much better by road: Currently, it can take up to two hours, during rush hour, to navigate the snaking route from the Mediterranean plains rising 750 meters (2,460 feet) into the Judean Hills.
Israel’s minister of transportation, Israel Katz, told local media last month the new rail would be inaugurated in September, but qualified the announcement, saying the new fast service would initially run only as far as the airport.
Ultimately, the plan is for four departures an hour, to serve the nearly 50,000 commuters a day connecting Israel’s business hub and the Holy City.
Not only should the new line reduce road congestion, government officials believe it could also boost Jerusalem’s economy by encouraging people based in and around Tel Aviv, on Israel’s coastal plain, to work and relocate to the city.
From an engineering perspective, it is hard to overstate the scale of the project. The new line involved boring 38 kilometers of tunnels into the mountains and building 7 kilometers of bridges to span deep valleys. In total, engineers constructed eight bridges and five tunnels and laid 57 kilometers of new track.
The train isn’t without controversy. Two sections of the line — largely underground — run through the West Bank, which is considered occupied Palestinian land by the international community.
And in the future, officials want to extend the line deeper into the city, with a final station to be built inside the walls of the Old City, close to the Western Wall, the holiest site at which Jews can pray. Like the West Bank, the international community also considers the Old City occupied Palestinian land.
Ikrema Sabri, a senior Muslim cleric and former grand mufti of Jerusalem, slammed the Israeli government’s plan to dig under the Old City when the announcement was made in December 2017.
Undeterred, Israeli Minister of Transportation Yisrael Katz told CNN the proposed new station would be named after Donald Trump.
Dedicating the rail station to the U.S. President would be a way of thanking him for what he did last December, when he recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, an announcement he followed up in May, when the US Embassy was relocated to the city.