James Galfund

Israel Railways Gets Ready for “A Whole New Ballgame”

In August, I journeyed to Israel on behalf of Development Corporation/Israel Bonds, the organization that has helped build every sector of Israel’s economy. My goal: to find the alternate Israel, the Israel beyond perceptions of conflict and controversy.

The search led me to the headquarters of Israel Railways’ fast rail project, a high-profile, game-changing initiative. After overcoming the kinds of delays inherent in an enterprise of this magnitude, as well as setbacks stemming from political and special interest considerations, the so-called “Capital Express” officially launched in 2005, and is expected to become fully operational in 2018.

When that happens, passengers will zip from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on trains reaching speeds of 100 mph. The journey, currently a tedious one and a half hours each way, will be whittled down to just 28 minutes.

The high-speed electric trains – the first in Israel not to be diesel-fueled – will race along a complex network of bridges and tunnels that, says Batsheva Segev, manager of the project’s visitors center, stands apart as “one of the largest infrastructure projects in Israel’s history.”

By the Numbers

The sheer scope of the undertaking becomes apparent as Segev lays out the numbers. The six tunnels are a combined 24.8 miles, and the eight bridges span 4.3 miles in total length. The longest tunnel stretches 7.2 miles, while the longest bridge extends more than 4,100 feet. The highest bridge, at 318 feet, is the tallest in the country.

Development has been particularly challenging because the route runs through daunting mountainous terrain and high over valleys. Consequently, building the line has necessitated employing massive numbers of people with diverse skill sets, 1,500 in all, including 700 engineers.

Ultimately, Segev tells me, the expenditure of such large amounts of human and financial resources – totaling some $2 billion – will result in “a whole new ballgame” for Israel.  She explains the project will have “ripple effects that are wider than connecting the two cities.” In particular, Segev cites “economic and social benefits for all sectors of Israeli society” that will result from the dramatically shortened trip.

Segev knows, nonetheless, that “we have to prove ourselves, because we received billions of shekels from the government.”

Israel's train tunnels
Israel’s high-speed trains will race 100 mph along a network of eight bridges and six tunnels. (JAMES GALFUND)

Overcoming Topographical and Environmental Challenge

Those shekels have been put to use for a wide range of elements essential to the line’s successful completion, like tunnel boring machines, or TBMs. The German-made TBMs, custom-manufactured at a cost of approximately $22 million apiece, are monster machines stretching nearly 500 feet in length and weighing 1,800 tons.

Three TBMs are being utilized to chew through solid rock at a rate of 50-65 feet per day, depending on the difficulty of the terrain. The task is complicated by the fact that the TBMs bore two adjacent tunnels, as opposed to just one for trains going in each direction. The reason, explains Segev, is to ensure that trains keep running in the event of an emergency.

Environmental concerns also received considerable attention from planners. Every tree and every rock removed from a hilltop to bore a tunnel was eventually put back exactly as before.

Illustrating the enormity of the task, trees in the path of the TBMs were carefully uprooted and moved to a fenced-off location outside the construction zone, where they were replanted and marked for eventual return. Special precautions were taken to ensure the relocation zone remained undamaged. The care taken to minimize environmental damage underscored Israel’s stature as a global leader in sustainability.

Another case in point was building a bridge spanning the Yitla Nature Reserve. Environmentalists opposed a bridge and proposed a tunnel instead, which would have added millions to the cost. The solution was to build a bridge spanning the valley that rested on just one central pillar instead of four. The ingenious engineering feat preserved the integrity of the reserve and the project moved forward with all parties satisfied.

Custom-made boring machines carve two tunnels out of formidable terrain. Every tree, and even the rocks, are carefully moved and then put back exactly as before. (JAMES GALFUND)
Custom-made boring machines carve two tunnels out of formidable terrain. Every tree, and even the rocks, are carefully moved and then put back exactly as before. (JAMES GALFUND)

“Its Influence Will Be Huge” 

Beyond its careful approach to the environment, Israel is also protective of its past. A uniquely Israeli consequence of infrastructure development is the uncovering of artifacts dating back to antiquity. When this happens – which is frequently – work must stop until the finds are studied by the Antiquities Authority, often setting back schedules for months. In this instance, Israel Railways caught a break. Only one olive press was discovered, with no implications for the rail line’s timetable.

This being Israel, however, there is another essential component to major projects – security. The final stop along the line, Jerusalem’s Ha’uma station, is being built more than 260 feet below ground to double as a shelter that can accommodate thousands of people in the event of an unconventional weapons attack.

Prior to launch, trains will run without passengers for a three-month testing period to ensure everything is safe and operating correctly. Then, when the line officially opens in 2018, three trains will run during peak hours. By 2020, the number will double to six.

There is no doubt the “Capital Express” will have a transformative effect on Israel. Reflecting on the enormous undertaking, Segev says, “There are so many reasons it shouldn’t have gone through, but it’s happening.” She concludes with a prediction. “Its influence,” Segev states with confidence, “will be huge.”

And so, the search for the alternate Israel has taken me another step forward, but my journey is certainly not complete. In this land of outside-the box thinking, the potential for amazing discoveries is seemingly limitless.

Israel Bonds staff members pay a site visit to what an Israel Railways spokesperson calls “one of the largest infrastructure projects in Israel’s history.” (JAMES GALFUND)



About the Author
James S. Galfund is former National Director of Marketing & Communications for Development Corporation for Israel/Israel Bonds.