‘We waited a long time for this’: Tel Aviv light rail sets off after years of delays

People come from across country to ride on inaugural trains, with 70-year-old Koti Elazar recognized as first passenger; ‘This rail will take Bat Yam forward,’ mayor vows

Illustrative: A test drive of the light rail in Tel Aviv on August 16, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Illustrative: A test drive of the light rail in Tel Aviv on August 16, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Tel Aviv’s long-awaited light rail began chugging through the White City Friday, with dozens of passengers departing from three stations simultaneously to mark the hotly anticipated launch of a system many hope will transform the highly congested region.

Three trains from Petah Tikvah Central Station, Kiryat Arye, and Bat Yam-Komemiyut departed at 5:40 a.m., officially opening the Red Line, which carries passengers for 24 kilometers (15 miles) from Bat Yam to Petah Tikva across 34 stations.

Work is underway on two additional lines that will triple the area served by light rail; those lines are for now scheduled to be completed in 2026 and 2028. The entire project will ultimately include 139 stations in 14 cities, and will eventually be complemented by a three-line regional metro rail.

At a short ceremony in Bat Yam Friday morning, Tel Aviv resident Koti Elazar, 70, received a certificate as the first passenger ever on the Red Line.

“I arrived specially from North Tel Baruch in order to inaugurate the line. I planned this all a week in advance,” Elazar told the Ynet news site, referring to the luxe neighborhood on the northern side of Tel Aviv.

Rides will be free for Friday, but the light rail system will start collecting fares on Saturday night. Trips within Tel Aviv will cost 5 shekels, or about $1.30, and longer trips to other cities in Gush Dan will cost just over $3.

“We are happy and excited. We waited a long time for this,” said Bat Yam Mayor Tzvika Brot, while also noting the years of messy construction that made the line possible. “The residents bore the brunt of the burden from building the rail over the years, but the result is amazing.”

“This rail will take Bat Yam forward,” he added.

The government mass transit agency NTA oversaw the work on the line, which has been under construction since 2015, and cost NIS 19 billion ($5 billion). Policy makers hope it will help ease traffic in the crowded Tel Aviv region, where infrastructure has struggled to keep pace with growth.

Mika, 12, told the Ynet news site that she convinced her father, Shai, to wake up early and ride the first train with her.

“I told him already a week ago. He wakes up at 5 a.m. anyway, so he drove me here. I’m having a blast,” she said.

“This is really a historic moment. We deserve this rail after a long period that Tel Aviv has suffered,” Shai added.

The opening of the light rail didn’t only attract residents of Israel’s center, but people from across the country and around the world who were keen to try out the brand new system.

Nikita, a 15-year-old teen from the southern coastal city of Ashkelon told the Walla news site: “I’ve been waiting many years for this. I wish that they would also build one in our city.”

“I wanted to be part of history, we really believe in public transportation,” said Itai Shifrin, who came from Modi’in with his three children Yarden, Maya, and Arbel.

“I am originally from Bat Yam and have been hearing about this project for decades,” he said, adding: “I prefer to travel by train and not by car. Mainly when it isn’t crowded.

Shawn Michael, an architecture student from London, told the Ynet news site he had followed the project for years.

“Especially because of climate change, projects like this are important, and it’s important to learn from them,” he said.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ceremoniously launched the project, accompanied by shouts from nearby anti-judicial overhaul protesters and amid major traffic blockages across Tel Aviv and its surrounding cities.

Anti-government protest organizers have also announced plans to disrupt Friday’s launch and block the line’s route.

The premier cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony at terminus one of the Red Line in Petah Tikva, saying: “This line will serve everyone — those who support us and those who oppose us. This is a festive day for Israel.”

For many residents, one of the key issues clouding the light rail’s inauguration is that it will not run on Shabbat. Transport Minister Miri Regev’s predecessor, Merav Michaeli, had promised that the line would run on Friday evenings and all day Saturday — a rarity in a country where public transportation does not operate on Shabbat. (An exception is in Haifa, which has a large Arab population.)

Michaeli’s promise prompted outrage in the Haredi city of Bnei Brak, which has several stops on its route. Earlier this month, Regev announced that she was reversing Michaeli’s decision.

“We will uphold the status quo, according to which the train will not operate on Shabbat. For non-religious people, Shabbat is also a day of rest. And this is a Jewish state,” Regev told journalists on Wednesday.

As it stands, the line will cease operating three hours before Shabbat and only operate for 45 minutes on Saturday evenings, a shorter period than Jerusalem operates its light-rail system.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai skipped the opening ceremony over the Shabbat decision. Now, some critics of the government’s decision say they plan to boycott the train line altogether until it operates on Shabbat.

On the other six days of the week, the new train line will ease for many Israelis what can be a complicated, congested journey to and through Tel Aviv. Traveling into the center of the city from either of the terminuses of the train line can take up to an hour by bus; driving by car, which not all Israelis can do, comes with a hefty price tag for parking — if a spot can even be found. Now, it will take just minutes to traverse the same distance. Areas served by the new train line are expected to become more desirable for people seeking to beat the city’s high rents.

JTA contributed to this report.

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