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Tel Aviv’s LRT dream

An aerial view of the below ground Carlebach construction site in August 2018; all of the sub-surface stations are built using the cut-and-cover method.

Over the course of the last century, Tel Aviv-Yafo has grown into a vibrant metropolis with bold architecture (recognised by UNESCO for World Heritage status in 2003), laid-back attitudes and an entrepreneurial spirit. From the foundation of Tel Aviv in 1909 as a garden suburb of the ancient Mediterranean port of Jaffa with numerous open spaces – and the subsequent unification under one municipal entity in 1950 – the ‘New York of the Middle East’ has grown in affluence to become a thriving hub for artists, technologists and financiers alike.

This progress has brought significant challenges for movement across an area now stretching to 60km2 (37 sq. miles), and with a total population approaching 3.9 million – including around 440 000 within the city of Tel Aviv-Yafo itself. The metropolitan area accounts for 45% of Israel’s overall population and around 50% of the country’s jobs.

Currently, public transport makes up less than 20% of journeys and the proliferation of private car use has grown exponentially. With all metropolitan transport under the control of the Israeli Government, the development of mass transit solutions to free up city streets and improve air quality has the backing of the highest authorities; it is hoped to double the number of public transport journeys in the next two decades.

Yet with such a current mindset towards private travel, one of the great problems is in challenging the perception of public transport, hence the drive to introduce a state-of-the-art light rail system, to be eventually followed by a metro. This is designed to revolutionise transport usage patterns, a vision that has taken on urgent importance with existing public transport alternatives deemed insufficient to support the region’s growth and continued prosperity.

Yet beyond being a transport remedy, light rail is also seen as a tool for reshaping the city. Construction of the Red line in particular is designed to enhance and modernise the look and feel of central locations such as Begin Road and Jerusalem Boulevard. An increase in real estate values along the route has already been experienced. These rises are expected to continue when light rail operations begin, with premiums especially felt within a radius of up to 500m from the new stops.

The scale of the challenge

Plans for an urban railway date back to before the founding of the modern city, and were followed by aborted subway schemes in the 1960s and ’70s. The first seeds of the lines under construction today were sown by Roni Milo, Tel Aviv’s mayor between 1993 and 1998,
who committed to building an underground railway during an election campaign that even included printed postcards showing a map of the proposed system.

The municipality submitted a plan, but this was opposed by the Finance Ministry which preferred a surface alignment.  With this in mind, the Tel Aviv Metropolitan Area Mass Transit Authority (NTA) was established in 1997 and by 2000 Milo’s vision had morphed into a light rail scheme, deemed more economically feasible and deliverable in a shorter timeframe.

Envisaged as a private sector-driven project, in 2006 the MTS joint venture – Africa Israel, Siemens, Egged, China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), Soares da Costa and HTM – was awarded a Build-Operate-Transfer concession. After four years of delays, primarily due to financing issues, this contract was cancelled and the project was nationalised. It was taken over by the NTA in 2010, the agency now responsible for financing and construction via a budget set by the state.

One of the biggest and most complicated infrastructure projects ever carried out in Israel, the current scheme is also being carried out in a very crowded area, in soft sand and with a high water table complicating works on the underground sections. Further delays have been experienced and intended opening dates have come and gone, with projected costs now set at NIS16bn (EUR3.8bn) – more than double the original estimate.

The current NTA management, led by CEO Yehuda Bar-On, was appointed in April 2014. Although utilities diversion and some groundworks had been completed previously (see TAUT 912, December 2013), major works on what became known as the Red line began in 2015 and a new completion date of October 2021 was set. Battling a sceptical public and decision-makers, the current management has been able to regain control of the project, bringing it back on track to meet the 2021 deadline.

The agency says lessons have been learnt in terms of minimising risks and increasing the quality and safety of the construction programme. These are now being applied to not just the Red line, but also in the recently-published tenders for future lines.

At the time of TAUT’s last update, Minister of Transport Israel Katz said: “After 100 years of vision and 60 years of unfulfilled promises, I have initiated construction of light rail in the Gush Dan [Tel Aviv Metropolian] area. A mass transportation system is the only solution for the traffic problems in the Tel Aviv Metropolitan Area.

“Every year we see an additional 200 000 cars on the roads, this means a further one million new cars within five years. Without a good, modern mass transportation system, people in the metropolitan area will soon lose the ability to drive or move on the roads at all.”

NTA forecasts suggest the Red line is expected to serve a quarter of a million passengers each day with a high-frequency service.

Construction of the Red line

The 24km (15-mile) route follows one of the most heavily-used traffic corridors in the region, featuring some of the highest population densities. With 34 stops, it passes through five municipalities – Bat Yam, Tel Aviv-Yafo, Ramat Gan, Bnei Brak and Petah Tikva – with an 12km (7.5-mile) section beneath Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan and Bnei Brak. Distances between surface stops will be 500m; underground stops will be 1km apart.

As the route lies on Israel’s coastal plain, underlain by variable geology and ground conditions, the selection of appropriate geotechnical design parameters for the excavation has been challenging. However, greater challenges lie within the relationships with both business and residents during the extended construction period; the NTA has therefore invested considerable resources in community relations and public information.

The agency admits that there are also difficulties arising from the need for co-ordination with so many local authorities which are in close proximity but are very different in character. Some have raised objections about the route design and attempted to determine changes at a late stage, while a difficulty also arose with an Orthodox authority which objected to work on Saturdays (the Jewish holy day). This matter is still subject to legal proceedings.

The Red line has been designed as the ‘backbone’ of the three-line system. It will be joined by three metro lines in the future to create a fully-integrated network linking major commercial, technology, industrial and residential concentrations and facilitating better employment and investment opportunities.

Starting from the central station in Petah Tikva, the Red line will serve Rabin Medical Center in Petah Tikva before running along Jabotinsky Street in Bnei Brak, and on to Ramat Gan. It continues to Arlozorov station, along Begin Street and near the Azrieli Center, from where it will continue on to the south of HaKirya – headquarters of the Israeli army – and Jerusalem Boulevard in Jaffa, to a terminus in southern Bat Yam. In the future there is the possibility of an extension to Moshe Dayan interchange in Rishon LeZion.

It is planned that the reconstruction of street environments will encourage urban regeneration, with all stops designed to concentrate pedestrian, taxi drop-off/pick-up and bus transfers at entrances to reduce walking distances. A common aesthetic will enhance the passenger experience as well as providing easy maintenance.

There are ten underground stops in the busiest areas of the city, typically 121m long by 20m wide and constructed on three levels: platform, technical and concourse. They are built using an outer box of diaphragm walls during excavation with steel props until ground water level is reached. The overall depth is around 30m, but this will vary from site to site. Each has a minimum of two entrances with integrated lifts – they will double as civil defence shelters with air-conditioning and real-time passenger information systems.

Civil engineering is being undertaken by domestic contractors Solel Boneh and Danya Cebus, working with the China Railway Tunnel Group (CRTG) and the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC). Electricity and communication systems are provided by EEB and CRTG, with Deutsche Bahn managing systems integration.

Although the surface stops are still to be built, those underground are in various stages of construction and around 80% of the tunnels are completed.

High-frequency services

In November 2015, NTA selected CRRC Changchun to supply 90 double-ended low-floor LRVs for the Red line, with an option for a further 30. The CRRC subsidiary won the contract above rival offers from Alstom and CAF. The fleet will be maintained for a period of 16 years under a separate arrangement.

A full-scale mock-up of three LRV sections was placed at the corner of Rothschild Boulevard and Habima Square in central Tel Aviv in September 2017 for public consultation.

The 27-acre (11 ha.) depot site features stabling, maintenance and operation centres and is located in northern Petah Tikvah, adjacent to the future Em HaMoshavot station and connected to the main running lines via a designated spur. With over 25 000m2 of covered space, the control centre is located in the facility and the compound will also have the capacity to stable over 100 vehicles to cater for system expansion. Works at the site began in July 2014 and are expected to be completed in the first half of 2019.

The operational diagram calls for 4-5-minute headways for the at-grade sections in peak hours, under line-of-sight operation. In the underground sections, where the peak demand will be higher, provision is being made for headways as short as every 90 seconds using automatic train operation (ATO), with timetabled services at 3.3-minute intervals. Alstom is providing its Urbalis 400 CBTC system under an NIS390m (EUR93m) contract signed in 2017. The track layout features pocket tracks in some areas in the underground section to allow for turnbacks.

The use of regenerative braking could see 30% in total energy savings for the line, but this requires careful optimisation of the timetable so that, as far as possible, there are always two vehicles in the same electrical section. This is deemed easier to accomplish with ATO. While regenerated energy is typically fed back to the power grid, on the Red line this will be fed back to the system as the traction power substations are not directly connected to the electricity utility.

Journey times will be dramatically reduced from their current durations – travel from Rabin Medical Center to the city centre will be reduced from 45 minutes to only 19 minutes for users of the Red line, and the journey from Bat Yam in the south to central Tel Aviv’s Arlozorov station will take 28 minutes, instead of the 90 minutes needed currently.

Operation and maintenance will be undertaken by a joint venture of Israel’s largest bus operator, Egged (51%), and Chinese interests from Shenzen Metro Group (30%) and CCECC (19%). Fare collection will be integrated with the national AFC standard.

Creating a network

While work on the Red line progresses, the next two major projects on the horizon are the Green and Purple lines; tenders for systems, construction, rolling stock and maintenance for both of these lines were released in late 2018 under a planned PPP model.

The 39km (24-mile) Green line will connect southern areas of the Tel Aviv metropolitan area with the city centre, also serving as a connection for development along the coast between Tel Aviv and Herzliya and employment centres in Ramat HaHayal, Tel Aviv University, Holon, and Rishon LeZion.

With 4km (2.5 miles) in subway, the line will feature 62 stations in total with four underground (Carlebach, shared with the Red line, Kaplan, Kikar Rabin/Municipality and Arlozorov). The southern section has two branches – the western branch begins at Moshe Dayan, with the eastern branch at the junction of Road 412. The line offers interchange with the Red and Purple lines at several locations: the Purple line at Levinsky and Arlozorov and the Red line at Moshe Dayan and Carlebach.

The NTA issued the tender for the underground section between Levinsky Street in the south of the city and Nordau Street in the old north in December 2018. It includes design and construction of both the tunnels and underground stations and requires bidders to demonstrate experience of such works in soft ground and groundwater in an urban environment. As Israeli companies lack such experience, the tender is only open to overseas organisations, although domestic groups can join them as subcontractors for station fit-out.

Upon contract award in 2019, works are scheduled to begin in 2020.

The Purple line is designed to connect the metropolitan area’s eastern regions with the city centre, with 43 surface stops. This 27km (17-mile) route will start at Arolozorov and continue to the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, where it splits into two branches. The northern branch will run through the streets of Rafael Eitan, Anna and Max Web, adjacent to the northern border of Bar-Ilan University. The southern branch will run through the Tel HaShomer military base and Yehud-Monosson to a new terminus on Hatayasim junction. The southern branch includes an extension through the city of Or Yehuda, to the line’s depot.

The line will offer interchange with the Red at Arlozorov and Alenby and with the Green line at Levinsky and Arlozorov.

Work on the Purple line began on 25 December 2018, focusing on subterranean utilities along the section on Arlozorov Street between Namir Street and Weizmann Street, while work on the Green line is due to start in the first half of 2019. Work on both lines is anticipated to take six or seven years.

Fulfilling the ambition?

Looking further into the future, the creation of a light rail network is just the beginning of even more ambitious plans to reshape and reconnect Tel Aviv-Yafo.

On 1 August 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the Ministries of Finance and Transport to formulate a proposal for a three-line metro, fulfilling the aspiration that began in the 1960s (one station was completed in 1965 in the basement of the Shalom Meir tower block, but rails were never laid and this now stands empty as a reminder of what could have been). Details of this plan were presented to the National Infrastructure Committee on 12 December 2018.

The 140km (87-mile) network has an estimated pricetag of NIS100-150bn (EUR24-36bn) and will serve 23 municipalities. Plans include 110 stations and early forecasts estimate ridership as high as 1.5 million passengers/day, with trains operating to a headway of three to four minutes. The level of state finance is unprecedented and is in addition to the estimated NIS30bn (EUR7.2bn) already committed to LRT development. However, although the metro is considered the ultimate solution for congestion in the greater metropolitan area, thus making it a priority.

The first 73km (45-mile) north-south line will have 53 stations serving the cities of Ra’anana, Herzliya, Ramat HaSharon, Kfar Saba, Hod HaSharon, Tel Aviv, Bat Yam, Holon, Rishon LeZion, Ness Ziona, Rehovot, Be’er Ya’akov, Ramla and Lod, as well as development areas including Sharon Junction, Glilot Junction, Holon and Tzrifin.

The second 28km (17.5-mile) east-west line will serve Rosh Ha’ayin, Petah Tikva, Ramat Gan, Givatayim and Tel Aviv, as well as future development areas such as Sirkin –  27 stations are planned.

The third 39km (24-mile) line follows a semi-circular route to serve Bat Yam, Holon, Azor, Or Yehuda, Givat Shmuel, Petah Tikva, Tel Aviv, Ramat HaSharon and Herzliya, as well as development areas including Glil Yam and West Ramat HaSharon, Tel HaShomer and Or Yehuda. This includes 29 stations.

The dissolution of the government in December 2018 has delayed any decision-making until later in 2019, following the 9 April elections. Yet the state had previously set 2030 as the target completion date, which may be overly ambitious when one considers the gestation period of the current light rail system.

If achieved to schedule, the metro plan would be transformational, but given the scale of the task – creating one of the biggest new-build metros seen anywhere, outside of China – it remains to be seen whether it can be accomplished. The next two years will be crucial to the city’s vision.

Grateful thanks are due to the NTA for their assistance in the preparation of this article.
All images courtesy NTA unless otherwise stated.

Article appeared originally in TAUT 975 (March 2019).