Tel Aviv’s much-anticipated light rail line opened on Friday, but rather than celebrate, the residents protested, demanding the right to profane the Sabbath.
Israel’s biggest public transportation project, the Tel Aviv Light Rail, also known as Dankal, opened its Red Line for service on Friday, carrying about 100,000 people. Rides were free for the inaugural day of operation, but the light rail system started 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.
On Tuesday, prior to the opening, the government announced that the new public transport system would not operate on Shabbat or religious holidays. The line will cease operating three hours before Shabbat and only operate for 45 minutes on Saturday evenings. This is consistent with government policy as well as the status quo on public transportation during these days. In addition, the Red Line runs through Bnei Brak, one of the country’s most densely populated Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) communities.
Protests began before the rail started service with hundreds of people waiting at the new stations on Friday morning. Some protesters even handcuffed themselves to the handrails inside the trams.
Some protesters camped out after the railway shut down on Friday afternoon.
Many more protesters waited to board the last train. In response, the operator shut down the train at Tel Aviv’s Elifelet station — forgoing final stops in Bat Yam — and turned off the air conditioning. The protesters stayed in the dormant trams for over two hours before exiting the station.
The protest was organized by the Pink Front group, which claims to promote liberal values and gender equality. The group has also organized anti-Netanyahu protests and protests opposing the proposed judicial reform.
The religious tensions surrounding the project began during construction. Miri Regev, the Minister of Transportation, was highly critical of the delays and significant cost overruns of $828 million on the Red Line. She has been accused of punishing the project by diverting funds to outlying areas where religious Jews live since they have a lower rate of private vehicle ownership.
“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.
“Israel is a Jewish state,” Regev said. “We preserve the status quo. I don’t understand what they are protesting about.”
Regev’s predecessor, Merav Michaeli, had promised that the light rail would run on Friday evenings and all day Saturday.
Work on the Red Line started in 2011 following years of preparatory work and was carried out by two -Chinese companies. The Red Line travels 24 kilometers from Petah Tikva to Bat Yam. The total cost of the Red Line is estimated at approximately US$3 billion. Another Chinese corporation is providing and maintaining the trams.
It is the first of three light rail and three metro routes being developed by the government-owned NTA Metropolitan Mass Transit System to serve Israel’s principal commercial and economic hub, which has a population of 4 million and growing. It totals a 24 km route and 34 stops, of which 12 km and 10 stops are underground.
The entire project will ultimately include 139 stations in 14 cities and will eventually be complemented by a three-line regional metro rail. Green and Purple lines are under construction. When complete, they will cover a network of 85 kilometers. Ridership is expected to reach 80 million passengers/year. Services are initially running every 6 min on the surface sections and every 10 min underground, with an increase in frequencies and speeds planned.