Jerusalem's multi-faith train crosses city, creed and gender

By Anshel Pfeffer, August 25, 2011
Free riders: some strictly Orthodox passengers on the light railway

Free riders: some strictly Orthodox passengers on the light railway

It might be seven years later than the original schedule and take twice the time to arrive than that promised by its planners, but as of last Friday, Jerusalem finally has Israel's first light-rail network.

Well, not exactly a network: so far there is only one line, 14 kilometres from the Pisgat Ze'ev neighbourhood in the north-eastern corner of the capital, all the way through the town centre to Mount Herzl in the west, and there are no immediate plans for more lines. But why quibble? For the next three months, it's free of charge.

Thousands of Jerusalemites flocked to board the train on its first days, crowding the space-age-look, sleek and silent, silver carriages.

For now, the light-rail, operated by City-Pass, a partnership including the international Veolia corporation, is not a viable transport option.

The average journey, end-to-end, is over 70 minutes, much longer than the time it would take by bus, and certainly in a private car, but the operators promise to cut the travel time by half in three months, when glitches in the municipal traffic-light system are ironed out.

Each train can carry a maximum of 500 passengers but as more trains are added to the line and frequency improves, towards the end of the trial period, the near-crush scenes of the last few days are also supposed to be a passing memory.

Residents of all groups and creeds tried out the new ride this week and this is probably the least predictable aspect of the new train's future. Going from east to west, through Jewish and Arab neighbourhoods, and predominantly secular to strictly-Orthodox quarters, it is a multi-faith train that will test the city's sensitive fault-lines.

So far, City Hall has resisted demands by the Charedi community to segregate men and women in part of the carriages; there were still many black-hatted men trying out the service this week.

Though left-wing and Palestinian groups have criticised the line's route, originating across the Green Line, there were also plenty of Palestinian youngsters who got on at the Beit Hanina and Shuafat stops.

Last updated: 10:59am, August 25 2011