The Bottom Line / Israel's Great Train Robbery

Appointments at Israel Railways are as political and inappropriate as ever.

Once upon a time, the general manager of Israel Railways was one Menachem Savidor. According to legend, he attended an international conference on trains, where the Americans boasted how many miles of track they had. The Russians countered with their tens of thousands of kilometers of rail. Savidor thought for a moment and said, "I don't know about the length, but about the width, we have the same that you do."

Not much has changed since then. The appointments remain political ones, and the delays remain as egregious as at all government agencies. Taking a train anywhere is a gamble: How late will it be? Will we be late to work again?

On October 31, passengers rebelled. The train trundled into the Arlozorov station 15 minutes late, and the announcer said that because of the delay, it would be skipping several stations. The disgusted public crowding the platforms wouldn't let the doors of the train close, probably because not a few had to get off at the interim stations.

The railways apologized the next day, blaming the delays on problems with the Jerusalem route. It appears that the Kfar Saba train originates from Jerusalem, which is the slowest line in the world.

The Tel Aviv-Jerusalem line, passing through Beit Shemesh, is ridiculous. It does not deserve to fall under the category of transport at all, but rather as a tourist attraction. It is a pitiful line that takes only a few hundred people a week who happen not to be in a hurry. It would pay more to send each passenger by limousine than to invest in the track.

However, soon the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem line will be in the headlines again, namely when it snows in Jerusalem, and parents crowd into the train to show the excited kids the hills shrouded in white. The papers will run pictures of the train passing through snow banks, and everybody will brim with pride. Nobody will be thinking of the half-billion shekels squandered on that silly track.

But it turns out that not only is the line wasteful; it's also unsafe. It is too windy, and the carriages bought for the trains are unsuitable. They are cracking. The repairs will cost millions upon millions more.

None of that has stopped Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit from vigorously plugging the construction of yet another line between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, a fast track that would pass through Sha'ar Haguy, a track sporting towering bridges and tremendous tunnels. Indeed, why not throw enormous amounts of good money after bad?

Nobody does the alternative math - what else could be done with the billions to be thrown away on the fast train to Jerusalem.

Israel Railways plans to invest NIS 2 billion on safety and reorganization, according to the press, because of this year's two deadly accidents. It will be spending NIS 20 billion in a five-year plan that began in November 2004. The Finance Ministry is lending NIS 2.5 billion, and Israel Railways will be raising $6.5 billion in the capital market.

Whence these billions? There isn't a sou for the fight against poverty and drugs, old-age entitlements, education reforms, the building of new classrooms; and endless studies show that trains disappoint the high hopes pinned on them. Usually the final investment is double that of the estimates, and traffic congestion is not eased.

Indeed, investing in trains, except for a line linking the greater Tel Aviv outskirts with the center, is a shocking waste of money. The trouble is that politicians love choo-choos. It looks good on the resume for a minister to write, "I built a track."

In tiny countries like Israel, there is a better mass transportation alternative to trains: buses, traveling designated bus lanes. The devil of it is, buses aren't sexy. Trains photograph so much better.