Analysis

This Train Should Be Derailed Until It’s Ready

So who’s responsible for this travesty that endangers passengers and degrades the quality of train service around the country? Politicians, and the Israel Railways

Commuters are seen on the new high speed train travelling between Jerusalem and Israel's Ben Gurion International Airport, on September 25, 2018, in Jerusalem.
AFP/Gali Tibbon

Passengers on the new train line to Jerusalem – those who got stuck on the tracks over the past few days, and those who spent two hours trapped in a tunnel on Tuesday – hadn’t realized that their tickets were for an amusement park ride, where they’d be serving as the test subjects for Transportation Minister Israel Katz.

The mishaps that we’ve been witnessing are characteristic of a trial period, and they’re not expected to end any time soon, say industry sources including employees at Israel Railways. But the problem isn’t the mishaps, but rather the decision to take the train line live, and let it carry passengers, by reducing the frequency of trains running on Israel’s established lines, particularly the north-south route between Nahariya and Be’er Sheva.

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If the trials were being conducted without passengers, if the Transportation Ministry were to wait until the new trains for the line were to arrive – then these issues would be handled quietly, without making the news. The line could be dedicated after undergoing thorough checks and when truly ready for operation, and the regular passengers on other lines wouldn’t be harmed as a result.

So who’s responsible for this travesty that endangers passengers and degrades the quality of train service around the country? Politicians, and the Israel Railways. They were itching to declare the project completed, despite this being far from the case. How far? Well, the line is supposed to run from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv; in practice the half between Jerusalem and Ben-Gurion International Airport has power, while the other half between Ben-Gurion and Tel Aviv is still waiting to be electrified.

At the entrances and exits from tunnels there are mechanisms that keep trains from colliding, and these, too, are still in their trial period. Apparently some of the underground tunnels are still susceptible to moisture issues – as was revealed last week, when a pipe burst and halted the line. There are electric train engines that Israel Railways employees are driving only now for the first time, and any issues with them require flying in special teams from abroad; the signaling system needs to be integrated into the nationwide system. And that’s just the short list.

The state of the infrastructure and the limited experience operating the line has resulted in some 10% of scheduled trains never leaving the station. From the day the line was officially opened, less than a month ago, some 648 trains were scheduled, while in practice only 589 ran, according to the Transportation Ministry’s deputy director general for infrastructure, Koby Blikstein.

Now imagine if your car wouldn’t turn on one out of 10 times you tried to drive it, and you suddenly had to find an alternative, immediate means of transportation. What would you do?

Blikstein said that the trains on the new line were being halted in order to protect passengers, and that the line is halted over every risk. It sounds logical, but what would you do if during one out of every 10 drives, a red light would light up on your dashboard and you’d be forced to pull over to let the engine cool off? You’d get it that your car – much like the new train line between Jerusalem and Ben-Gurion Airport – can’t be relied upon as a means of transport.

Right now, my personal recommendation is that travelers don’t take the new train to Jerusalem. Definitely don’t depend on it to get to work on a regular basis, or even for an important meeting. That’s exactly why the line is still free; anyone who isn’t suspicious of free lunches will be learning that lesson now.

>> Read more: Train Wreck: How Tel Aviv’s New Transport System Is Going Off the Rails 

Once the trial period is over, people will be able to travel quickly and easily from Israel’s capital to the international airport, and take a train from Jerusalem to southern and northern Israel with only one transfer. Until this happens, we need a responsible adult to step in and say: Stop the human experimentation. Send the train cars back to Israel’s well established lines, where they are sorely needed; the large majority of cars on the Jerusalem-airport line are entirely empty.

The Transportation Ministry and the Israel Railways present the new train line as “connecting Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.” That statement entirely ignores the comfortable, new buses taking passengers directly to and from the two cities, departing every 10 minutes, and traveling no slower than the train. True, the buses aren’t free, but they’re even more convenient – you don’t need to reserve a ticket online in advance, and you don’t need to change vehicles midway at the airport. The main problem is that the buses also get stuck in traffic. If the government really wants to make transport easier between Israel’s two biggest cities, there’s an easy, quick solution: They can create a public transportation lane on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway.

Instead, Katz prefers to get bogged down with solving the complicated issues plaguing the new train line, instead of making transport better right now.

The Transportation Ministry and Israel Railways declined to comment.