The Jerusalem Light Rail

August 2011. Jerusalem inaugurated its light rail, more than ten years after the project was approved by City Hall. However, questions remain: how to explain the delay in the works? What issues are raised by its route, which crosses the eastern part of the city, occupied territory under international law and whose annexation by Israel has not been recognized by the UN?

To answer, we have to go back to the geopolitical context of Jerusalem, especially at the beginning of the years 2000. Similarly, the choice of route, often analyzed according to the current political situation, must above all be considered in the light of certain unchangeable elements that are not often highlighted: the physical geography of Jerusalem and its very particular topographical conditions.

Using an original approach, we propose revisiting the history of this public transport a year after its inauguration, and considering its outlook for Jerusalem.

Jerusalem‘s geopolitical development

The Jerusalemcity council justified the building of the light rail by the rapid demographic expansion of the town, which required renovating and modernizing the public transport system. These demographics are mainly explained by developments in the geopolitical situation inJerusalemsince 1967.

Immediately following the War of Independence in 1949, Jerusalemwas divided between the western side, under Israeli sovereignty, and the eastern side, under Jordanian control. An armistice line, the “Green Line”, delineated this division. The Six Days War (1967) changed the status quo, since Israelconquered the eastern part of the city. The Jewish State officially declared the “reunification” of Jerusalemand in 1980 proclaimed it the “eternal and indivisible capital of Israeland the Jewish people”. The UN did not recognize this annexation and still considers Jerusalemto be territory under Israeli occupation. Since 1967 Israelhas had a settlement policy in the eastern part of the city, thereby strengthening the Jewish presence there. In 2011 the “unified” Jerusalemmunicipality had 800,000 inhabitants, of whom 400,000 (65%) are Jewish, 285,000 (33%) Muslim and 15,000 (2%) Christian. 40% of these Jewish Jerusalemites live on the east side[1] and represent 40% of the total population ofEast Jerusalem.

An obsolete transport network

Since the annexation in 1967 the city’s population has increased considerably (+65%), making the public transport system obsolete. On the west side the roads are constantly clogged by buses, while on the east, to relieve the absence of public transport to Arab areas, a system of private transport has developed. Yet it remained anarchic without organizational authority, licenses for divers, regulated prices, or defined lines and stops.

Buses in rush hour in yafo street, before the construction of the light rail (2008)


So in the middle of the 1990s, City Hall set up the Jerusalem Transport Management Team (JTMT), a public body responsible for proposing a new urban development plan. It envisaged the creation of a light rail network, deemed quicker than buses, less prone to road accidents, less polluting and above all offering larger transport capacity. City Hall approved the construction of the first line in 1998 and in 2002 selected the Citypass consortium, which brings together Israeli companies (75%) and French ones – Alstom (20%) and Veolia (5%) – to build, operate and then transfer the entire project to the city.

The route of Line 1 is13.8 kmlong fromMountHerzl(in the south-west) to the settlement of Pisgat Zeev (north-east), located over the Green Line, and has twenty-three stops. The estimated time from one terminus to the other is about forty-five minutes.

Abnormally long works

Initially the project ought to have taken about five years. However, Line 1 only went into service in August 2011, 13 years after the city approved the project, back in 1998. How are these delays to be explained?

Firstly, there was the security situation at the time. From October 2000Jerusalemsuffered an unprecedented wave of terrorist attacks, which in particular affected the busiest areas and transport in the city. As a result, use of public transport dropped by 40%, causing the project to be put on ice, since logically the light rail route followed the existing transportation lines. They had to wait three years – the contract was officially signed in the summer of 2005 – for the attacks to subside, especially on account of the construction of the wall aroundJerusalem.

To these initial delays were then added, following the start of works in2006, arange of problems, political (opposition of the new mayor, Nir Barkat, elected in 2009, who saw this as merely an expensive project that would only disturb the citizens), bureaucratic (delay in the issue of building permits) and technical  (rails laid down in the wrong places).

Works in Yafo Street (2008)

From 2005, astonishingly more than seven years after the project had been unveiled in the press, pro-Palestinian movements inWestern Europeand then in the rest of the world started an international campaign against the Jerusalem Light Rail. The issue was that in East Jerusalem it crossed territory occupied byIsraelaccording to international law, and the presence of stops at several Israeli settlements.

Beyond the political debate, what really were the items that weighed on the choice of this route? To understand it, one has to study the physical geography ofJerusalemand especially of it hills. Similarly, an in-depth analysis of the human geography ofEast Jerusalemputs into context some of the criticism, especially that about the route being considered more favorable to the Jewish than the Palestinian population.

Topography: the reasons for this route

When the Light Rail enters East Jerusalem it is traveling towards Pisgat Zeev, accordingly excluding the entire Palestinian population on the south side ofEast Jerusalem. If this area is not served, it is primarily on account of the topography of the terrain.Jerusalem, like all theWest Banktowns, is on the watershed, at a height of750 meters. As the crow flies it is55 kmfrom the sea and30 kmfrom the riverJordan, which flows through a rift valley300 metersbelow sea level. The differences in level are therefore much more pronounced on the east, and as a result the eastern side has more, steep-sided water courses. For that reason the slope is sometimes too steep (15%) to allow a light rail to pass.

In and of itself, this does not mean that the population, basically Palestinian, needs to be excluded from the transport network. For that reason the JTMT planned several connections between theJerusalembus routes and the light rail, especially on the eastern track. Bus lines therefore allow the entire Palestinian population ofJerusalemto have access to the Light Rail at six different points.

Service and Usage in East Jerusalem

Of the twelve stops that straddle or are across the Green Line, six cross through Israeli settlements (French Hill, Ramat Eshkol and Pisgat Zeev), and six go through Arab areas (the Muslim Quarter of the Old City,  Bab Alzahara, Sheikh Jarrah, Shuafat and Beit Hanina). In terms of stops, access to the Light Rail on the eastern part of the track is the same for Palestinians and Israelis, and clearly is in favor of the former in terms of population served. The potential number of Israelis in fact living in the East with direct access to the Light Rail – that is, who live less than500 metersfrom a stop – is estimated at 55,000, as against about 90,000 Palestinians.

In addition, beyond the Arab areas to the north – Shuafat (38,000 inhabitants) and Beit Hanina (27,000 inhabitants) – and those of the center – Bab Alzahara and Sheikh Jarrah (10,000 inhabitants) – the “Damascus Gate” stop, also serves the 26,000 Palestinians of the Arab Quarter of theOldCity.

Works in the palestinian neighborhood of shuafat (2008)

In terms of usage, the eastern track of the Light Rail is taken by the Palestinians in both directions: from north to south, the inhabitants of Shuafat and Beit Hanina can reach the Old City (where the Muslim holy places are located) and the main Mahane Yehuda market in the city center (west Jerusalem); the Palestinian inhabitants of the Old City, Sheikh Jarah and Bab Alzahara (in the south), can get to Shuafat and Beit Hanina (in the north), which contain business areas. In a survey taken during the first half of 2012, Palestinians living in areas served by the Light Rail were almost 75% in favor of it[2].

On the other hand, the main use of the eastern track of the Light Rail for Israelis living on the western side ofJerusalemis limited to getting to the town center (west). Israelis on the western side rarely travel to Pisgat Zeev, populated mainly by religious Jews. Paradoxically, the residents of Pisgat Zeev are generally against the Light Rail, mainly for security reasons. They feel that the Pisgat Zeev (east) – city center (west) route will be only be used by the Palestinians.

Thirteen years later

The Jerusalem Light Rail opened its doors to travelers on 19 August 2011. So does its inauguration mark the end of its problems? Apparently not. Two months after the start of operations, the drivers went on strike on account of their working conditions; many incidents (clashes, worsening relations) and an armed attack have been recorded in the last twelve months; on account of breakdowns of ticketing machines, a large number of fines were issued by conductors considered inflexible by users, some of whom have complained; giving the Light Rail priority at traffic lights has only been implemented gradually, leading to a journey time sometimes twice as long as announced; despite an advertising campaign, people continue to cross at places that are not official crossings, causing accidents and hence delays.

Nevertheless, these incidents are not especially linked to the Jerusalem Light Rail. On the contrary, this type of occurrence regularly goes with putting this type of transportation into service, all the more so when the city – and in our case, the country – are not familiar with this form of transport. Even the acts of violence reported in the trains have not exceeded – for the time being? – the number of violent incidents in other cities: the murder of an 18 year old, stabbed on theStrasbourgtram in 2008, comes to mind.

The light rail along Walls of the Old City of Jerusalem

From the transportation point of view, the Light Rail is starting to achieve its targets: up to 100,000 people use it every day; travel time is now what was originally forecast (45 minutes); the main street (Jaffa Street) has been closed off to car and bus traffic in order to decongest the town center; and at the end of August 2012 the bus lines running along the Light Rail route will be discontinued, in order to use solely the Light Rail, to better ensure intermodality, served in turn by a single ticketing system for these two forms of transport.

The public transport system inJerusalemis unquestionably becoming more modern. Denigrated for a long time for its delays and its route, the Light Rail is beginning to make a place for itself in theHolyCity, so much so that some at City Hall are thinking of creating other lines…


[1]  On the other hand, almost all (98%) of Jerusalem Palestinians live on the East side.

[2] The surveys were carried out in March 2012 by TNS Teleseeker, an Israeli market survey and opinion poll company and subsidiary of the International TNS Global group, the leading, world specialist in market surveys.

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