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Jerusalem LRT: Meeting the COVID-19 challenge

City Hall on 19 April 2020. In the heart of Jerusalem, this JLRT stop would usually be filled with people in the middle of the day.

The COVID-19 pandemic has spread to all four corners of the globe, with ramifications felt in every sphere of human existence. For much of the Western world, the wide-ranging impacts caused by the onset of the crisis occurred within the space of a little over a month.

The previously unimaginable steps that governments have taken, such as the closure of all public events and large-scale lockdowns and quarantines, have now become commonplace. Within this unprecedented context, a new discussion has arisen in cities everywhere: To what extent should public transport be halted, if at all? And how should systems that remain open adapt to the growing crisis?

Compelling reasons support the different sides of the discussion, and tailored solutions have been formulated for the circumstances of each city. It is certainly acknowledged that for many, public transport remains the only way to purchase food and medicine or go to work. But it is no less critical to note that given their confined space, trams, trains and buses are key locations where the coronavirus can spread.

In this article I will explore the challenges facing us, Connect Jerusalem (Light Train), as the operator and maintainer (O&M Company) of the Red line of the Jerusalem Light Rail Train (JLRT), and the steps we have taken to adjust to life in the age of COVID-19.

The JLRT has been immensely successful in its eight-plus years of service, but, like all operators, we find ourselves in uncharted territory. Moreover, as a forced shutdown looms as a possibility there is a need to explore what it would mean to enter ‘shutdown mode’ – and also how commercial service may resume.

Challenges facing the JLRT system

As the onset of COVID-19 in Israel became more of an unavoidable reality in early March, the JLRT faced questions that were as disturbing as they were new.

Ours is a fairly small system, the nation’s first and only light rail service, comprised of just 14km (8.7 miles) and 23 stops. Opening in August 2011, the JLRT line winds through the heart of Jerusalem, linking  many previously-unconnected sections of the holy city.
This and other key factors contribute to the relatively large ridership, which in recent years has reached close to 50m passengers annually.

In many ways, the JLRT’s outsized success has become intrinsically linked with Jerusalem’s wider prosperity, with crowded LRVs becoming a standard feature of the city. What changes would now have to be made to our approach to service, to protect both the public and our employees? The implications of this question were uppermost in our minds as we entered the mode of crisis management.

Parallel to the outcomes of our internal deliberations (outlined below), new emergency regulations were being enacted by the Government of Israel to contain the pandemic. These have dramatically changed everyday life for millions. We began with social distancing rules and work-from-home instructions, as well as required self-isolation for those who had come into contact with people confirmed infected. These soon expanded to include stricter limitations, such as the closure of most workplaces and public spaces, the cessation of communal prayer, facemask requirements, and even required home isolation for the entire public (with several notable exceptions).

Public transport was not immune to these enacted changes. Many bus and heavy rail lines were required to operate in limited capacity or close entirely. The JLRT operating schedule was changed by law to end on weeknights at 20.00 instead of 00.00, and with no service at all on Fridays, Saturday nights after Sabbath, or on days preceding holidays. Considering the circumstances, this was far less restrictive than what could have been ordered. The recognition that we should remain operational to this extent can be attributed to the unique status the JLRT has achieved in Jerusalem and the professional relationship we have with Government stakeholders.

As the situation worsened, more stringent measures were enacted for the Passover holiday, restricting certain Jerusalem neighbourhoods and mandating limitations on movement between them. A closure was ordered for five of the downtown Jaffa Road stops, with JLRT drivers ordered to essentially bypass this central part of the line. At the time of this writing (20 April), these station closures have just been lifted.

In tandem with the increasingly severe ‘top down’ governmental enactments – and as public life ceased to function as it once had – we implemented a number of ‘bottom up’
decisions that changed the way our company functions. Some of these can be described as normal under the new circumstances, such as greatly limiting in-office presence (especially for higher-risk employees) and major increases to cleaning/disinfecting activity. Others, however, had greater impact in their scope and effect:

  Closure of the Customer Service Center in downtown Jerusalem

  Cessation of most customer service activities, including ticketing (exceptions: telephone call centre, website updating, lost and found for humanitarian items)

  Cessation of onboard ticket inspections and most Customer Service Officer (CSO) activity

  Signage campaigns to promote safe distancing, especially onboard LRVs

  Strict limitations on all non-urgent entrances to the depot facility

  Limiting access to the Operational Control Center (OCC) to active operators only, while also ensuring the ongoing separation between other OCC operators

  Encouraging separation of JLRT drivers and limiting access to the Driver Rest Centre to active drivers and essential personnel only

  Cessation of other non-essential or supplementary activities

As of today, commercial service continues within the above framework, albeit under a diminished schedule and without most non-operational activity; it is a testament to the years the JLRT has invested in its situational readiness that these were able to be rapidly implemented. Some of these decisions were nonetheless extremely difficult as they required the furloughing of valued employees.

It’s also very important to note that the above changes – both governmental and by us – have come with a steady and staggering decrease in passengers. JLRT ridership today stands at less than 10% of its usual figure, highlighting just how different the reality has become for a once-crowded LRT line.

Sadly it may not stop here. The COVID-19 pandemic is a fast-moving crisis with numerous influencing factors. Its evolving nature and the success in containing it will play a central role in determining how long the status quo lasts, or if further changes are required. What if a full shutdown becomes necessary, for an indeterminate timeframe? As much as we all hope that does not happen to us or any system, it could well become a question of central importance for many public transport operators that should be studied.

Shutdown and resumption of service

Our examination considered a number of likely assumptions should a complete shutdown of commercial service be required (hereafter referred to simply as ‘Shutdown’). At the forefront of the assessment is the need to grapple with the great unknown, namely, how long would a Shutdown last? There is no clear answer and worse, what could today appear as a reasonable appraisal might be far less realistic in just a few days’ time.

It is a question with real implications, both in terms of the regime during Shutdown, as well as for assessing how long it would take to return to commercial service. Under such unclear circumstances, it seems reasonable (or rather, less unreasonable) to assume that if Shutdown is going to occur, its duration would be in the range of 30 to 90 days.

With this in mind, we defined a number of vital assumptions, summarised below (some of these actions have already started). These are followed by an outline of the envisioned operation and maintenance regime if a Shutdown becomes necessary. It is hoped that the attention to advance planning will allow us, JLRT’s concessionaire (CityPass) and the JLRT Maintainer (Citadis Israel), to effectively weather such a scenario and be ready to resume reliable service as soon as possible.

1.  Cessation of all commercial LRV movements

2.  Cessation of regular maintenance activities, adoption of a designated Shutdown regime

3.  Shutting down high voltage power outside the depot complex (rectifier stations/OCS)

4.  Removal from commercial use of all automated ticketing machines

5.  Cessation of all commercial CSO activity

6.  Closure of the Customer Service Center in downtown Jerusalem, and the temporary removal of certain installations inside

7.  Cessation of most customer service activities, including ticketing services

8.  Closure of the Driver Rest Centre in northern Jerusalem and the CSO centre on Jaffa Road

9.  Cessation of the fine cancellation requests and appeals process

10.  Discontinuation of all non-urgent legal activities, including collection/enforcement

11.  Partial cessation of IT systems

12.  Furloughing of certain O&M and maintainer personnel.

Shutdown is not expected to include closure of the depot complex, which is self-contained and separate from the JLRT line. The following activities are expected to continue, although with some in decreased capacity:

1.  Operation of the OCC

2.  Monitoring of the JLRT line (from the OCC)

3.  LRV movements within the complex and its access routes

4.  Security under the standard regime

5.  Workshop-related maintenance as per the designated regime

6.  Training/refreshment activities

7.  IT systems management

8.  Management meetings

Now the underpinnings of a full Shutdown are in place (in particular setting out the differentiation between the depot and the JLRT line), we can focus on provisional plans for the revised operation and maintenance regimes and define the day-to-day aspects that must continue and those which can be put on hold.

Maintenance during Shutdown

The symbiosis between O&M Company and maintainer, at the heart of any successful LRT system, continues to be crucial. Connect Jerusalem retains overall responsibility for the maintainer’s work, leading to a close working relationship that has taken years to develop.

This new regime is not only responsible for maintaining the JLRT at appropriate and acceptable levels, but is a primary factor regarding how quickly a resumption of commercial service can safely occur. Achieving these targets with diminished staff will be a central challenge.

The overall concept can be summarised in three principles:

1.  All safety-related maintenance activities shall continue

2.  Essential, non-safety related maintenance that is already scheduled shall continue

3.  Continuation of other activities that, were they to be stopped, would mean unreasonable delays to resumption of commercial service.

Rolling stock, infrastructure and civils maintenance: Detailed planning sets out a comprehensive list of actions and their intervals, conforming to the conceptual principles above. For example, fleet inspection is reduced to twice per week, and LRV movements (including functional and dynamic brake checks) would occur in
the depot complex once per week.

The actions for various subdivisions of infrastructure maintenance (OCS/track, power, signalling, ticketing, telecoms etc) and civil works are similarly diminished, but are tailored to ensure the JLRT is maintained at an acceptable minimum, with corrective maintenance as necessary.

Power: High voltage power is planned to be ‘switched off’ outside the depot complex only. Low power subsystems will still be utilised by the operators for monitoring purposes (CCTV, lighting etc).

Line surveys: Periodic line surveys continue with an eye towards identifying impacts to infrastructure or other issues that warrant immediate maintenance attention.

Approvals: Any change to maintenance activity with safety implications shall require Operations Manager approval; similar approval is required prior to resuming commercial service. This conforms with the German BOStrab principles (adopted in Israel), which emphasise the overall authority of the Operations Manager.

Operations during Shutdown

Ensuring that JLRT driver refreshment can be carried out efficiently is a key element in the time needed for resumption of commercial service. Additionally, the overall ability of the O&M Company to quickly return furloughed employees to work shall be consequential; this is especially true for customer service and CSO activities, which will unfortunately suffer the most from furlough.

Operations

Operations Managers: Shall continue to oversee all activities.

OCC: Reduced shifts, with rotations to ensure full-time, albeit minimal, presence in the OCC. Those operators who have not worked in the OCC for a period exceeding 30 days shall have to undertake short refreshment training.

Trainers/Minders: Continued engagement to ensure they are fit to carry out driver refreshment. Wherever possible, trainers and minders shall not exceed 30 days without having driven the entirety of the line.

Drivers: There are several potential regimes, depending on the length of Shutdown. Each has its own detailed planning and emphasis, but all rely on the following base assumptions:

1.  The return to work of a sufficient number of drivers from furlough

2.  Availability of trainers and minders to carry out refreshment training

3.  Availability of sufficient maintained LRVs

4.  The ability to drive on the full line during refreshment training.

Driver refreshment plan A – Baseline: Following the standard operating programme, the Baseline programme can be utilised during an extended period of Shutdown to maintain a minimal level readiness for all drivers, or in a scenario where lengthy notice has been given for a gradual/staged return
to service.

Driver refreshment plan B – Expedited: Under a considerably shortened period, this programme connects groups of drivers to trainers and requires at least several hours of refreshment driving per driver along the entirety of the line. This approach can be utilised in scenarios where seven days of advance notice has been provided.

Driver refreshment plan C – Adapted: Scenarios for fewer than three days’ notice prior to the restarting of commercial operation. This requires modification to some procedural norms and greater hands-on managerial oversight. Trainers accompany drivers on initial journeys, with elevated supervision to continually assess fitness; intensive oversight is maintained over several days as drivers return to their
natural conditioning.

Safety

As no substantive changes to the JLRT system are anticipated, formal ISA approval is not expected to be warranted (though independent review is certainly welcome). Incident reporting shall continue to be prepared and submitted as required. These activities ensure our ‘living safety culture’ is not negatively impacted during Shutdown.

Finance

This department shall continue to take care of regular business, including making payments and submission of reporting as required. It would remain the point of contact between the O&M Company and its subcontractors and service providers.   

Line security

Unlike the depot complex, security along the JLRT line is carried out directly by governmental security services, so close contact is essential and we would recommend continued surveys along the length of the line.

Documentation

Given the unique nature of the crisis, the O&M Company will document changes enacted as part of the Shutdown and activities required for resuming service. This can provide the basis for future case studies, in order to refine best practice for similar events and to enable independent critical review.   

Company culture

Senior and middle management will maintain close contact with all employees to provide assistance where possible (both professional and personal). This is an intrinsic part of our DNA with respect to our employees, most of whom have worked together for many years. We place a great deal of confidence in our culture – one of our greatest developed assets.

Resuming commercial service

So, how can JLRT service be safely and quickly resumed, once notice has been given to end the Shutdown? This is difficult to quantify on a definitive basis, depending on so many unknown elements. For example, there will likely be a significant difference if Shutdown lasts 90 or more days instead of only 30. Or if the order to resume service places a demanding timeline or other conditions for doing so, which in turn could impact the ability to carry out operational refreshments.

The availability of furloughed employees to return to work, not to mention subcontractors and service providers, is obviously a key factor. In more general terms, the success of both our own teams and the maintainer in achieving the regime goals set during Shutdown will also play a fundamental role. Taken together, it is certainly within reason (and perhaps just simply wiser) that resumption should occur in staged or gradual fashion.

So much for the unknowns. What is known and can be relied upon are the organisational strengths of our professional teams and the co-ordinated planning they have produced. The strength of the company culture and its adaptability will go a long way towards ensuring that both employees and passengers can return both safely and quickly.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic has left the world scrambling; public transport is no exception. When the danger has finally passed, the sector will have to be rehabilitated, much like every other industry. It may take a good while for passenger confidence to return and for ridership to come back to its usual levels.

But with careful planning and confidence in the professional culture we have built, we can anticipate some of the challenges to come and hopefully reduce their effects in advance.

As I sit in isolation, working from home, I am thankful for the blessings we still have and I’m praying for those who are suffering. Hopefully this terrible pandemic will be quickly overcome and humanity will soon see better days.    

Article appeared originally in TAUT 990 (June 2020)