Gronau: PM's Rail Plan Is on the Wrong Track

Reuben Gronau never had a chance to tell treasury officials his opinion on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's epic plan to develop Israel's rail and road system. That's probably just as well, at least for Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz.

If he'd heard the learned professor's opinion, Steinitz would have had to confront Netanyahu, because Gronau - an expert on transportation systems - thinks Israel is about to throw away anywhere from NIS 40 billion to NIS 70 billion for no reason.

Gronau was supposed to meet with a forum of Finance Ministry officials two weeks ago, but the meeting was canceled. What he had to say was that trying to cultivate the periphery by laying down rails from Kiryat Shmona to Eilat would be an epic waste.

Trains, he explains, are a system for mass transportation, and a limited one at that. They can only travel on the track and stop at predefined stations. Laying down a track and maintaining it are expensive. The cost is only warranted when the train would serve to transport masses of people long distances.

For a train system to make sense, it has to fulfill two conditions, explains Gronau: the roads must be congested, so the train would provide the advantage of speed. Two, the train must be able to ease that congestion. Those conditions exist only in the center, between Tel Aviv and Haifa and Tel Aviv and Be'er Sheva, he says.

The distance from Tel Aviv to Kiryat Shmona is 185 kilometers, a distance that could warrant a rail - but Kiryat Shmona has only 22,000 residents, which isn't enough to fill trains. Nor do the good people of Kiryat Shmona have any reason to take trains. The roads up there aren't congested so it's easier and cheaper to travel by vehicle.

Where do we find congestion? At the entrances to Tel Aviv, Gronau says. What Israel needs is to invest more in the Haifa-Tel Aviv line, or to invest in a rail system for greater Tel Aviv. Israel doesn't need a train to Kiryat Shmona, or Eilat for that matter.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it

Gronau isn't talking theory. He checked and found that the most-traveled train line, from Nahariya to Tel Aviv, takes 400 people per train at peak times, and an average of 250 per train throughout the day. On average, Israel's trains transport 260 people per train at peak travel times and 200 throughout the rest of the day. Which means that even now, the trains in the center are half-empty.

How many people would take a line to Kiryat Shmona or Eilat? Average occupancy would probably plunge to near zero.

Israel Railways' service isn't good enough, so it isn't attracting passengers, Gronau suggests. "If people don't want to take it even now, even in the crowded, congested center with the traffic jams, there's no reason for them to take it to places where the roads are empty."

He also found that because of its poor service, the trains aren't attracting people who'd otherwise drive their own cars. It's taking people from buses, hence the economic contribution - through relieving traffic congestion - is small.

The main advantage of a train is speed. Netanyahu's plan postulates that a train would truncate the travel time from Tel Aviv to Kiryat Shmona from four to two hours. Gronau finds that ludicrous: having checked, he found that Israeli trains travel at 40 to 70 kilometers per hour. Only the Haifa-Tel Aviv express reaches 99 kph.

Why are the trains so slow? Because of the paucity of passengers. Trying to fill up, the train stops at all stations. Only the Haifa-Tel Aviv express starts full and travels without stopping.

So, Israel would pay through the nose to build a rail system from north to south that it doesn't need, Gronau sums up. Gronau looked at the cost-efficacy balance of Israel Railways (heavy cost of investment in laying tracks, savings to national economy from alleviating congestion) and found a heavy loss.

Israel Railways' financial statements don't include the cost of laying down tracks, just as the Egged bus company's don't include the cost of building roads. But while Egged isn't the only one using the roads, Israel Railways is the only one using the track.

The upshot is that nobody considers the cost of building rails. If that cost is added to Israel Railways' figures, its deficit jumps from the NIS 100 million it reports today, to NIS 700 million.

In short, the government is preparing to invest billions upon billions of taxpayer money in an inefficient monopoly that provides lousy service and pays much too much to its workers, Gronau says. His solution for Israel's infrastructure woes isn't trains, it's to improve the roads, which are cheaper and more flexible in their usage, serving both cars and public transport.