Taking Stock / Train to the Zoo, Anyone?

Have you taken the train to the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem yet?

It is a highly recommended outing, according to treasury clerks who live in Tel Aviv and took their kids to see the lions Saturday.

Why are they telling us about the trip? Because it's turned into an inside joke at the Finance Ministry. Except for going to the Biblical Zoo, the train doesn't have much to offer.

How do we reach that hasty conclusion? Easy - from conversations with Israel Railways officials, who admit that the line is bereft of customers on weekdays. A few hundred people take it, that's all.

Why does the upgraded line connecting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem come to mind? Because it's budget season, and the one for 2006 was submitted to the Knesset this week. As always, the government is preening about its heavy investment in infrastructure.

Infrastructure is a magic word in the Israeli economic debate, and the train is on everybody's list. Anybody wanting to sound politically correct chants: "Must invest in the train." All the talk is about laying tracks for fast trains crossing Israel up and down. No more traffic jams, moving to the Galilee and Negev. Get up in the morning, down a coffee, find a seat on the train, and Baruch's your uncle - you're at work in central Israel. Utopia.

A lot of suppliers, contractors, workers, cronies and ministers are going to wax fat, very fat, financially or politically, from that myth about the train.

Wending through the mountains

The history of the upgraded track between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem that wends through the mountains teaches that "train" is not only equated with "infrastructure" and "progress." It's also equated with "folly" and "waste."

The upgrade was born in 1998 through a combo move by two great infrastructure aficionados, the transport minister at the time - Ephraim Sneh, who was one of the worst economic ministers Israel has known - and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The idea of a train between the two major cities sounds great: train, infrastructure, Zionism, Jerusalem, ribbon-cutting ceremonies, headlines. Wow.

But what should one do before commencing a vast project like that? Conduct a feasibility study. Check if anybody actually needs the thing. See if the people who lead Israel Railways have the capacity to manage a project like that, or if they're a bunch of political appointments, good for nothing more than finding jobs for the boys as conductors.

More than half a billion shekels was squandered on that train line before people realized it is not economically feasible. It also turned out that it had been badly planned. It turned out that for all the billions they received, those great experts on trains didn't think to match the right carriages to the track.

When the ministers and train authorities approved the project, its budget was NIS 330 million. In practice, the cost climbed beyond half a billion shekels, an excess of more than 60 percent.

And now experts are worried about the safety of the line: carriages are cracking because they aren't suited to the winding track through the mountains.

Really, though, why should the train personnel be required to calculate accurate budgets? Why should they buy the right carriages for the track? Their job is to create headlines, to relate the wonders of infrastructure, and to count their mountain of cash.

Choose the right carriages to tracks - pooh, let the clerks at some German or French company do that, some place where trains are a means of transportation, not a play for power.

The Knesset State Control Committee yesterday discussed the fiasco of the Jerusalem line after a biting State Comptroller report.

But if committee chairwoman Meli Polishook-Bloch actually wants to change anything, she can't settle for lip service about the line's shortcomings. She must demand that Israel Railways disclose its budgets, down to the last detail, and publish all the studies based on which it has planned to pour NIS 20 billion over several years to come on trains, tracks, carriages, locomotives and salaries for all the political appointees that man the trains.