Train Service Resumes in Israel, as Dearth of Passengers Makes for Safer Ride

Three months after operations were halted due to the coronavirus epidemic, trains were on the move again on Monday. It was the passengers who were slow to come to stations

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Israelis on a newly functioning train, on June 22, 2020.
Israelis on a newly functioning train, on June 22, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

It’s 7:15 in the morning, and the Komemiut station in Bat Yam has everything one needs to catch a train in these crazy days – two platforms, a track, a guard at the entrance whose job is to scan your voucher that allows you to purchase a ticket, based on corona-induced restrictions, a scanning device for suspicious bags, as well as a device for measuring your temperature.

There are also stickers telling people that seats usually intended for four people can now be used only by the first person to sit on them. The only thing missing is people presenting their vouchers for scanning, having their temperature taken and taking a seat.

Three months after operations were halted due to the corona epidemic, trains were on the move again. It was the passengers who were slow to come to stations. Like soccer and basketball games now held without spectators, the trains were moving with almost no passengers.

Only one third of the maximal number of vouchers allowed were issued on the first day of operations.

Komemyut station in Bat Yam, June 22, 2020.Credit: Tomer Applebaum

One may understand why passengers chose to stay home and not rush to catch a train. After all, every segment of “public transportation” now needs to be viewed with scepticism. The “public” portion is suspect due to the flare-up in infections, and the “transportation” part is fraught with problems even without corona.

Train travel is a precarious proposition in the best of times. Fear of long lineups and delays made a resumption of operations a problem.

Veteran passengers who chose or had to use the train on its first day back experienced it as it never was and probably never will be again – almost completely empty, with distances kept due to a dearth of passengers. It felt like a particularly big motorcycle more than a vehicle for transporting masses of people. The days of overcrowded passages seemed far away and there were hardly any people occupying seats.

This doesn’t mean that everything went smoothly. Passengers boarding in Carmiel and hoping to reach Be’er Sheva at the listed time had to make an unexpected stop on the way, due to some technical problems. This might be a necessary step on the way to a full resumption of services.

Israelis on a newly functioning train, on June 22, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Just like the graphics used in many stations, the glass walls at the Haganah Station in Tel Aviv are covered in large posters trying to give the space a classic look, but mainly serving to fend off the blazing sunlight.

At 8:30 in the morning, they served as choreography for Transportation Minister Miri Regev, who stood in the middle of the entry passage, next to a large mobile container of disinfectant. She gave her blessing to the renewal of operations, boasting that the train was operating on a different and unique model. “This is a model we worked hard on, which was presented to the prime minister and the head of the National Security Council. 

“The model is meant to enable the citizens of Israel to travel on safe and accessible trains,” she said. “One cannot access trains without the security-related and technological method of vouchers [ordered in advance online], so that we can regulate the number of passengers. Temperature is taken at the entrance and disinfectant is available. The public address system reminds people not to eat on the train, and every car has a corona monitor to ensure that people are abiding by the rules.”

Like other aspects of public life now, the trains have also turned from being a carrot to being a stick, the authorities’ way of transferring responsibility for managing the crisis from the government to its citizens. “Most of the public understands that if it lacks discipline, we  cannot allow public transportation,” warned Regev. “It’s an accordion model – we can close what we opened, and what we opened we can close.

Israelis on a newly functioning train, on June 22, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

We began with a 50 percent occupancy and we’ll raise it to 75 percent.” (God willing, if it goes to 150 percent, we’ll know that everything is back to normal.)

When she finished talking, just before she and her entourage spread out in the empty cars on their way back to Jerusalem, Regev met Gila Edrei on the platform. Edrei is the head of the Railways workers’ union and is a renowned expert on trains that stop and start. Last month she supported resuming operations, and with renewed operations comes the opportunity to go on strike again. The coronavirus eroded some of Edrei’s monopoly on operations, but now her hands are within reach of the brakes again. 

For now, with the train whistle still sounding, Regev and Edrei, as well as Israel Railways CEO Michael Maixner, who was part of Regev’s choreography, are all on the same page. As soon as the train leaves the station, masks and gloves will come off.

More than ticket inspections, the main focus on the train is now the masks people wear or don’t. The corona monitor we encountered, Meir, was an engineer who now has to make a living differently. He walks up and down in his orange vest, exposed to people dropping their masks under their noses or eating. However, the small number of passengers leaves him without much work. Despite his role, when cuts are made, he’ll be the first to be let go. This could also happen if a vaccine comes along or if a strike is called.

Added to the usual sounds one hears on a train are muffled sneezes, which usually are lost in the noise. But when ears are triggered to hear any possible warning sign, worried heads turn.

Each trip is an epidemiological search for a potential spreader of the virus. It’s not something that is recommended for anxiety-ridden types. Something in the inability to leave anytime one wishes makes this trip more stressful that a visit to the mall.

The train from Ofakim to Tel Aviv had an occupancy of 5-10 percent, instead of the usual 50-60 percent. Some stations were empty. So far, railway employees seem to be the main beneficiaries of the resumption of operations.

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