Scathing Report Highlights Decade-long Failure of Public Transportation in Israel

Inadequate public transport is costing Israel millions of dollars a year

Traffic near Tel Aviv, September 2016
Moti Milrod

“The transport reality facing Israel’s residents on a daily basis is difficult. Heavy traffic every morning and evening. Long rides to work bite into time, affect productivity, prevent the GDP from reaching its potential, and even lead to air and noise pollution,” State Comptroller Joseph Shapira stated in a scathing report.

The wide-ranging, 606-page report covers the state of Israel’s transportation, including trains, buses and roads, as well as public and private transport options. It estimates that Israel’s public transport shortcomings are costing the country tens of billions of shekels a year.

Shapira called on the government to implement immediate solutions to the problem, particularly given the prediction that the issue is just going to get worse.

“For two decades the government in general and the Transportation Ministry in particular have been aware that broad and efficient public transport is the best transport solution for metropolises, and a crucial component for growth,” states the report. “Yet until recent years, decision makers devoted too little attention to this,” it states.

Israel invests less in public transport than most other developed nations, while instead investing the lion’s share of resources in infrastructure for private cars.

The large number of private cars coupled with the relatively short distance of the country’s roads leads to heavy traffic. Israel has the most traffic of any of the 36 developed countries in the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development); roads here are 3.5 times as crowded as the OECD average, Shapira states.

Travelers wait for the train to Jerusalem at Ben-Gurion International Airport, September 25, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

The main party to blame is the Transportation Ministry and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, the report states. “The Transportation Ministry is not the main factor advancing Israel’s transport, among others due to failures in its functioning,” it says. Katz has been transportation minister since 2009.

The Transportation Ministry stated in response that even a decade wasn’t enough for Katz to improve the state of Israel’s transport, which it called “100 years behind.”

Railway can’t handle the volume

Among others, the report dedicates a section to the state of Israel’s trains. The number of train passengers is up 80% since 2010, but both the government and the Israel Railways failed to predict this, and as a result they’ve been incapable of handling the volume, it states.

The report lists a series of failures that have resulted in crowded train cars, and late and canceled trains. Furthermore, things are only likely to get worse over the next few years, the report finds. Even if the Israel Railways, the Transportation Ministry and the Finance Ministry increase the number of train cars and engines in the short term, it still won’t prevent train service quality from taking a hit, and prevent overcrowding, particularly during rush hour, states the report.

The trains are likely to be crowded for years, and there’s nothing to do about it, says the comptroller. During the years 2019-2022, the train lines that carry most of the passengers are likely to be at 130% of their capacity, meaning many travelers will spend long train rides standing, and sometime may not even be able to board.

The comptroller found that based on the strategic plan for the country’s train service, some one-third of the train lines will be crowded even in the year 2040, and even though the Israel Railways has two decades to prepare for increasing demand.

While the comptroller does not name names among railway officials, he calls on the Transportation Ministry and the Israel Railways to do a “thorough self-examination” regarding their functioning.

The comptroller lists the disincentives facing potential travelers. “Someone who decides to get to the train station via public transport may discover limited if any public transport to the station. If he decides to go by car, he may find no parking at some of the train stations. At the station he may discover that some of the lines are infrequent. The train may be late, and on the train at rush hour he may find himself standing.”

The comptroller noted that there was a 473% increase in canceled trains between 2015 and 2017, from 1,800 a year to 10,000 as of 2017. Rush-hour delays of more than six minutes increased by 44% between 2015-2017.

In addition the railway recently bought outdated train cars without a tender, said the comptroller. Not only did these train cars not meet passenger traffic, they were 15 years out of date, the comptroller said.

Also, Israel’s trains absurdly compete with bus service, instead of working with it, the report hints. Buses to and from train stations are not synchronized with the train schedule. As of 2018, there were 84 bus lines leading to 25 train stations. Buses need to run whenever trains are in service, said the comptroller.

Buses, 86% of all public transport

Public bus use in Israel rose 42% between 2013 and 2017, yet Israel’s bus service is on the brink of collapse, found the comptroller’s report.

Buses are Israel’s primary means of public transportation, accounting for 86% of all trips on public transportation.

Bus companies lack operating space, partially because municipalities are uncooperative and unaware of their needs, and prioritize real estate development over bus parking lots. In total, the country lacks 1,200 bus parking spots.

Another issue is government pressure to cut costs, which limits bus operations, such as the frequency of buses. On an average year in Israel, there are some 650 million bus rides on 9,500 buses, driven by 13,000 drivers.

The comptroller notes that it conducted a survey of 11,000 public transport users, and found that the main complaints are that buses need to run more frequently (30% of respondents), and that buses should run on Shabbat (26%), a politically charged issue in Israel.