Railways Reform: A Utopian Vision That Leaves Passengers Stuck Fast

Two years after workers were paid unprecedented benefits, they're foiling reforms and reneging on agreement.

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Fans of the Hapoel Be’er Sheva won’t be forgetting their soccer team’s away match against Haifa last month, and it has nothing to do with their team’s score. Rather, they’ll remember how they took the train home from Haifa - or meant to. In practice they found themselves exiting the train several kilometers north of their destination and walking along the tracks back to Be’er Sheva.

Several kilometers before it reached its final destination, the train cars had filled up with smoke due to a fire in the engine room. Two passengers were injured from smoke inhalation. Yet the travelers chose to walk to their destination instead of waiting for first response workers and a replacement train.

Two weeks later, a train leaving the Ashkelon station was forced to halt shortly after its departure when smoke started coming out of the wheels of one of the train cars. Hundreds of passengers were herded off the train as security guards sprayed the wheels with fire retardants. A quick investigation conducted on site revealed that the train engineer had “forgotten” to lift the brakes.

Two days later, passengers on the train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem were surprised when, an hour and a half into the ride, the engineer halted the train and announced that it had “run out of fuel.” It took them another three hours to reach their destination, and only after the train management had hired buses.

These kind of cases aren’t new. They characterized how the Israel Railways operated in the past, particularly when the company was going through periods of labor disputes. But all this was supposed to end when the much-lauded railway reform was approved two years ago.

In that agreement, achieved after months of tough negotiations with the union, the workers agreed to let the railways outsource maintenance for one-third of railway cars, let a subsidiary handle transport and another subsidiary handle the railways’ business development and real estate assets. In exchange, the state promised them a raise of 25% plus unprecedented benefits and grants worth NIS 42,000 to NIS 52,000 per worker, at a total cost of NIS 100 million. In total, workers will be receiving an extra NIS 1 billion in their time at the railways thanks to this agreement.

Some of the raises and bonuses were already paid, irrespective of the reform’s progress. The moment the deal was signed, workers were granted a NIS 12,000 signing bonus and retroactive raises of 10% for three months. In January, they were given raises of 2.25% plus “encouragement grants” of 3%. In July they got raises worth another 1%.

When the outsourcing for maintenance of older train cars begins at the end of this year, workers will get a raise of another 2.25% and grants of NIS 15,000, while repair workers will get an extra NIS 10,000.

In exchange, the workers agreed not to take any labor sanctions for 3.5 years. Yet two years later, it appears that they’re not upholding their end of the deal. The quiet wasn’t maintained for even an instant amid all sorts of allegations by the union. The subsidiaries were never launched, because Transportation Minister Haim Katz is delaying them.

The workers have received millions in public funds, trains are still halting mid-route, and Katz won the political payoff. Meanwhile, it’s the public and the passengers who are paying.

One factor contributing to the rocky labor relations at the train is the ouster of union chief Gila Edrey and the fight between the Histadrut labor federation and the Koah La Ovdim trade union over who represents the train workers.

Two weeks ago, the railway union declared a labor dispute over complaints including the installation of cameras behind ticket counter workers, which they say harms workers’ privacy, and the outsourcing of fueling operations. Both steps were taken following criminal investigations into employees accused of stealing money and fuel, respectively.

Meanwhile, train engineers have been failing to show up due to “mysterious” illnesses amid claims that they’re being subject to excessively long work hours.

Railway CEO Boaz Zafrir claims that some good has come of the reforms so far.

“The management and organizational culture at the railway has been entirely overhauled,” he said. The managers are now capable of making decisions and executing them, he said, adding that no longer is every decision subject to a committee.

“One of the workers’ complaints is that the managers are deciding things unilaterally, but that’s how it works,” he said. “The management makes decisions, not the union.”

Israel Railways trains wait in a Lod depot.Credit: Nir Kafri

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