Israel's Labor Minister Vague About Touchy Issue of Railway Work on Shabbat

The labor minister said essential maintenance would be done, without noting how many permits he issued for Saturday work or whether weekday train travel would be affected.

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An overground intercity train station in Tel Aviv, November 25, 2014.
An overground intercity train station in Tel Aviv, November 25, 2014.Credit: Eyal Toueg

Israel Railways will carry out essential maintenance work on the Jewish Sabbath this week, and the normal weekday operations of the railways will not be affected, Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz, who also serves as labor minister, announced on Thursday.

“On Shabbat, essential maintenance work will be carried out in order for train traffic to operate as usual in the best and safest way for all its passengers,” said Katz. The announcement came after two days of intensive discussions between the management of Israel Railways and Labor Ministry officials over the required work permits the government company needs to carry out maintenance and development work on Friday night and Saturday.

The Labor Ministry did not say how many of the 20 work permits the railways had requested were granted; or whether the work would include development projects that would require shutting down trains on weekdays if the work is not carried out on Saturdays. Katz seems to have ordered an information blackout on the matter of Sabbath work in an effort to keep the issue out of the media.

“I have instructed the management of Israel Railways to allow every Haredi or secular employee not to work on Shabbat if they do not wish to,” added Katz.

Two hours before Katz’s vague announcement, Israel Railways issued a surprise announcement saying it would close the Be’er Sheva Center and Dimona train stations over the next few Saturday nights for work to “improve the infrastructure.” Service will return to normal on those routes at 4 A.M. Sunday, which raises the question of whether the work was originally scheduled for the Sabbath.

Israel Railways told TheMarker that this work and the closures had been announced a month ago.

Another major issue that kept the Labor and Transportation ministries busy, along with the railways, was the planned closure of the main track through Tel Aviv in the center of the Ayalon Highway. The closure is planned to start on September 19 and last for eight days.

The closure of the busiest stretch of train tracks in Israel, between the Haganah Station in Tel Aviv and Herzliya, is needed to allow the installation of new tracks for the lines to Jerusalem and the Sharon region.

The ministries have worked for months to prepare for the shutdown, and will run shuttle buses, paid for by the government, for train passengers travelling between the closed stations.

Israel Railways had planned to launch an ad campaign, meant to begin about two weeks ago, to publicize the shutdown. But since the “Shabbat controversy” exploded the company postponed the campaign because it was unclear whether it would be allowed to carry out part of the necessary work on Saturdays. A decision on this project is expected very soon.