Observe How Many Deaths Populism Causes

Yesterday the papers reported that the police investigation into the train wreck on June 12, 2006, near Beit Yehoshua, is continuing. The accident had been one of the worst in Israeli history involving a train: five were killed.

After the tragic affair, the Transport Ministry set up an inquiry headed by Yossi Peled, a general in reserves. One of its recommendations was to employ observers, armed with MIRS cellphone/communicators, at train-road crossings, so they could warn an approaching train if a car got stuck on the track even if the barrier had come down. Placing observers would cost NIS 35 million a year.

With five bodies and a police investigation into who was responsible for the accident, nobody queried that recommendation, which has no parallels in any country in the world, including ones that have been running trains for twice as long as Israel's been around.

There is good reason why nobody the world wide has suggested placing observers at train-road crossings: when the crunch comes, the observers can't be trusted. They will panic. They will get confused. They will react slowly and, in short, too late. That is why.

Yet observers were hired and here are the results: no less than four accidents at train-road crossings manned by these observers.

Off the record, experts say that placing observers as a precaution is simply pulling the wool over the public's eyes. It is a pure waste of NIS 35 million.

But the experts won't say that on the record. What government official would dare challenge a recommendation designed to increase the public?s safety, even if the recommendation is patently ludicrous? What government official would dare to discuss frugality, when the threat of a police investigation hangs over every train wreck?

So the experts are silent, though they know the price of their silence. It is not money, either. Five were killed in train wrecks in 2006; the year before ten people were killed, in Israel Railways' worst year. Seven of them died in the horrible accident at Revadim.

The last two years were bad ones for train travelers, in short. The number of dead in train wrecks was equivalent to 1% or 2% of the number of people killed on the roads, in an average year.

Remember that number, and now factor in that Israel Railways allocated NIS 1.3 billion to building bridges and tunnels, specifically for the purpose of abolishing meeting points between roads and rails. (Either the train goes over the bridge, or the road does: the point is, they don't meet).

No question about it, abolishing the crossings is the best way to prevent cars and trains from colliding. That is how to achieve zero accidents. But then one realizes that one is allocating more than a billion shekels to preventing 1% to 2% of all fatal road accidents in Israel.

And the figures look even worse when comparing Israel with the rest of the world. Even though train traffic here is much thinner than in the west, Israel has the world's highest proportion of crossings converted into bridge/tunnels. Not only that, it's also a world record holder for the number of crossings governed by a barrier and traffic light. No less than 88% of Israel's crossings sport that protection, compared with 43% in the U.S., 21% in Canada, 30% in Britain, 58% in Sweden and 20% in Finland.

Only Italy, where drivers are roughly as wild as their Israeli counterparts, has a proportion approaching Israel's: 74% of the crossings are protected with barriers.

To sum up, Israel already over-invests in protecting drivers from colliding with trains, going by world standards. Now add that NIS 1.3 billion spent on building tunnels and bridges.

Israel can fairly boast that it's the safest country in the world, by a considerable margin, at least when it comes to train-road crossings systems.

In fact, the margin is so considerable that it cannot be economically justified, especially given that Israel is also a record-holder in deaths on the road.

If Israel is over-investing in train-crossings safety and under-investing in road safety, one  might think that it should divert budgets from securing train crossings, to the roads. That NIS 1.3 billion being invested in building tunnels and bridges to cross train tracks could have saved those five to ten people killed in a bad year. But if the money had been invested in improving roads, it could have saved twice as many people.

So where should the money go? Seems obvious, doesn't it, but it ceases to become obvious when you note that road accidents are reported at the bottom of page 17 in the papers.

Train accidents are front-page news. No wonder why Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz hastened to set up an inquiry over the Beit Yehoshua accident, and hastened to adopt the panel's ridiculous recommendation of placing observers at crossings and to invest more more more in building tunnels and bridges, at the expense of perpetuating the carnage on Israel's roads.

The Transport Ministry commented that Israel has among the highest number of separation systems in the world, which it views as a mark of excellence in handling road safety. As for dangerous roads, it said, they are handled in parallel and with the same seriousness, at an investment of hundreds of millions of shekels. "The use of observers is indeed unique to Israel: it is a pilot project that is still being studied," the ministry added.