Israel Railways fire
A firefighter battling the flames in the Sharon area after a short circuit on a passenger train led to a fire in three cars in late December 2010. Photo by Uriel Sinai
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The fire two days ago on a train near Shefayim exposed flaws and shortcomings in an important part of the national infrastructure. The cars were in flames and the panicky passengers had difficulty getting out, until a Border Policeman fired at the window panes and enabled them to exit. The incident ended without loss of lives, but five of the passengers were moderately injured and 116 sustained light injuries. The damage to the cars is estimated at NIS 50 million.

The reasons for the accident are being investigated, but the details that have been published arouse a fear of negligence in what safety precautions were taken. A similar fire erupted on a train eight years ago. The investigative committee that was established in its wake found safety lapses in the cars supplied by a Danish company.

Careless refueling of those cars is liable to cause fires due to leaks of diesel fuel. But the railway management refrained from installing systems for smoke detection and for extinguishing fires in the cars. Emergency doors failed to open, and there were insufficient hammers for breaking the windows.

The Israeli character, which tends to make light of rules and regulations and to depend on improvisation; which prefers solving problems to preventing them from occurring, was once again revealed in the train accident, less than a month after the major forest fire on the Carmel.

Instead of purchasing safe cars and improving the safety arrangements of the equipment that is already in use, the railway administration preferred to depend on luck and to hope that there wouldn't be another outbreak of fire in one of the Danish cars.

Once again, a hero was found, in the guise of Sgt. Maj. Salman Ammar, who demonstrated resourcefulness and rescued the passengers from the burning train. His resourcefulness is praiseworthy, but it would have been preferable had suitable preparation enabled him and his fellow passengers to arrive safely at their destination.

The CEO of Israel Railways, Yitzhak Harel, promised to investigate and to draw conclusions, and said that Israel Railways "is one of the safest companies in the world," and that the cars, which were purchased before his tenure, were equipped with safety devices "according to the European standard."

Harel cannot change the Israeli culture on his own, but he must act to impose stricter safety standards and to prevent accidents in the system for which he is responsible. We can't depend on the fact that among the passengers will be somebody armed and experienced who can prevent the disaster.