Tracking the State of Israil

Is a morning spent braving filthy trains, blaring ringtones and crowding that would make sardines jealous worth avoiding traffic? Haaretz rides the rails to find out.

Every day, Israelis commuting from all over the country to the center must choose between two bad options: traffic jams on the main traffic arteries or a trip spent standing in an overcrowded train.

While Israel Railways uses "For me, only the train" as an tagline, they might add, in fine print, "Riding in a train can be a pleasure except during rush hour."

During most of the day, railroad passengers can cover distances in peace and quiet, reading a book, doing work or watching the changing scenery, without nerve-racking traffic jams and while saving the environment.

But during peak hours, and especially on Sunday mornings and Thursday evenings, when it seems the whole Israel Defense Forces demobilizes and remobilizes - the train trip turns into an exceptional exercise in tolerance.

In this exercise, the regular passengers have the upper hand. Each one has his own survival strategy: Veteran passengers know how to maneuver their location on the platform so that the train will stop when the door of the car is right opposite them, and they will be the first to grab a seat.

The more sophisticated among them know how to choose the car that will stop as close as possible to the exit stairs at their destination. Anyone who hasn't rushed to grab a seat will need impressive pushing abilities. Most of them will be forced to make do with any piece of space they find: the area at the entrance to the car, the steps to the upper level, the aisles between the seats, the luggage area, and for those who are really desperate, the bathrooms.

Traveling under these conditions causes the passengers to become aware of muscles they never knew they had, and of sitting positions they have never tried before.

If that's not enough, the passengers undergo several types of torture that would make the Shin Bet security services envious: extremely powerful ring tones, forced participation in their seatmates' phone conversations and strong blasts of cold air from the air conditioner vents, regardless of the weather outside. Add to these the frequent interruptions in the schedule and train breakdowns.

For regular passengers, the serene advertisement for the train seems to come from another world. In sharp contrast to what takes place in the ad, it is impossible to open your arms to in order to leaf through a newspaper, and don't even think of using a laptop while sitting smushed on the floor.

During the crowded ride alongside thousands of soldiers, one can only pray that instead of stealth planes, the government will decide to purchase a few more train cars.

"I remember that I was pregnant and had no room to sit," said Shimrit Spector on Sunday, while standing in the aisle on a crowded train that left Binyamina for Tel Aviv at 7:49 A.M. She says that she has seen people faint because of the crowded conditions in the cars.

"The later you travel the more room there is," she explained. "Until there's a protest, nothing will help."

On Tuesday, we met her again on the same line. This time she was sitting on the floor.

"It's crowded, it's uncomfortable, but at least there's room to sit," she said.

Spector complained about the frequent delays, and about the fact that on certain lines there is no special price for students.

"They keep raising the prices. You have a student ticket, but the price is the same. They take advantage of the fact that it's still better than traveling by car four times a week."

Shira Ba'adani, who crowded next to her on Sunday, said that "once we were standing in the middle, one on top of the other, and we couldn't get off at the station. People are stuck to you in front and in back, it's like a gang rape."

A complicated maneuver above the people crowded in the aisle led to intelligence officer Ron Brand. "I have sat on the floor over 200 times," said Brand. "I've become quite used to it. I know that I'm going to sit between the seats. I enter the train, look for a place on the floor, and that's it, I sit down wherever I can."

On Sunday Hagai Nuriel of Zichron Yaakov was also sitting on the floor, on the way to IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv. "Usually it happens on Sundays," he explained, "but I've never gotten off the train and said, 'Wow, everything went right.' Either the train comes late, or it comes on time but for some reason they'll tell you to change platforms, or you have to switch trains at some station."

He added, though, "In the final analysis, I do see this as the most efficient way of getting from place to place."

From his spot, Yaakov of Kiryat Motzkin, who got a longed-for seat on Sunday, took his environment in stride.

"You travel once a week, it's very crowded, but there's no other option," he said. "The country has limited railroad tracks and space. If it were possible to add cars, they would do so. For anyone who was familiar with the train years ago, we've made great progress in 100 years. Once there were signs: '13 trains a day' - we would boast about that. Today there are over 250."

Haifa - Tel Aviv / 8:19 A.M.

No seats for soldiers or savtas

The Hof Hacarmel train station is the most crowded in Haifa, and rightly so: The station is right next to the central bus station, and anyone arriving by car will find ample space in the lots that separate the train station from the South Dado beach.

At the entrance to the station on Sunday there was a long line in front of the cashier's counter, and another worker was called to help passengers who had chosen to purchase their tickets from the automatic dispenser. The train set out on time at 8:19 A.M.

Almost all the passengers got seats, except for a few soldiers, "the regular passengers who are always screwed," as Ariel, who was on his way to his base in the south of the country, described them.

He said that twice a week, on his way to his base on Sundays and back on Thursdays, he has to sit in the aisles. "There are days when even in the aisle I have no place to sit," he added.

Passenger Meira, a grandmother, thinks that it isn't the soldiers who get "screwed." Three months ago she traveled to visit her daughter, and she stood all the way back to Haifa. Not a single "strong and healthy" soldier of all those sitting near her, she said, offered her his seat.

"Since then I swore not to travel by train," she said, "but there's no choice, I have to visit my grandchildren, so I prayed that the train would be empty."

This week she arrived at the Hashalom station in Tel Aviv on time, for the 9:11 A.M. train. On the way back, the train was delayed by three minutes, but as a consolation prize she found a window seat.(Fadi Eyadat)

Jerusalem - Tel Aviv / 7:30 A.M.

Can't beat the view, or traffic

It is possible to sum up the journey on the 07:45 train from Jerusalem to Beit Shemesh on Tuesday in two words: a surprise. Despite the fact that it was the morning rush hour, at 7:30 A.M. the station was almost empty, apparently because the train is not known for its speed.

There was no line at the ticket booth, service was obliging, the train was more than 10 minutes early, left on time and arrived two minutes ahead of schedule in Beit Shemesh.

Nonetheless, the train from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv is not meant for anyone in a hurry.

Israel's biggest city is connected to the rest of the train system by a slow and winding Ottoman-era line.

The trip takes one hour and 23 minutes, though the trip is comfortable. This line has some incontrovertible advantages. First, it passes through the most beautiful landscape in the custody of the Israel Railways, of terraces, orchards and oak groves, almost without a single road or town.

A lucky traveler might also spy a flock of gazelles on th hillsides. The trip to Beit Shemesh is also a kind of time travel: The station in Bar Giora, erected at the end of the 19th century, still stands in all its glory next to the tracks.

As befits a train from Jerusalem, every morning the last car is devoted to the work of the Creator. Dozens of worshippers draped in prayer shawls and bound with tefillin spend most of the way in morning prayer.

A secular traveler who happens on this car is privy to a spiritual experience. (Nir Hasson and Liel Kyzer)

Lod - Tel Aviv / 7:58 A.M.

Like canned pickles

The only good news for the passengers from Lod was that the train to Tel Aviv arrived on time. All the other aspects of the trip this week added up to a nightmare, for which the masses who were forced to participate were required to pay 11 shekels.

On Sunday at 7:00 A.M. the platforms at the Lod train station were full of soldiers on the way to base, carrying duffel bags the size of a bus with them; Arab women with head coverings, rushing to work; students hoping to reach the campus on time, and many others.

At the entrance to the station the passengers were greeted by a young, scolding, female security guard.

She insisted that the Arab women hand over their bags for a careful security check. Anyone who tried to avoid her was reprimanded.

According to the schedule published by Israel Railways on its Web site, the train sets out in the direction of Tel Aviv at 7:58. A few minutes before that the locomotive braked alongside platform No. 4, pulling behind it about 10 two-story cars, all of them filled to capacity with passengers - lots of bleary-eyed soldiers who were trying to grab a few minutes of sleep.

Anyone who nevertheless insisted on getting to Tel Aviv on time was forced to push himself among the passengers and to rub shoulders standing, against his will, with others who didn't have the good fortune of finding an empty seat. "It feels like in India," said one student. A religious passenger, who was wearing a white skullcap, was fuming that he had to pay for such treatment.

A plump and talkative female soldier interrupted the conversation.

"It brings back memories of the Holocaust," she said.

Usually 12 minutes pass quickly, but during this trip each minute felt like an eternity. Already during the first minutes one could guess which of the passengers had forgotten deodorant; who had eaten tuna; and who had a cold and wasn't coughing into his elbow, because there wasn't enough room to lift up his arm.

Strangely, the passengers were quiet. Like pickles standing in a can full of vinegar, they knew that there was no point in complaining, because that's the way it is.

Tuesday, 8:00 A.M., the same line: Nothing new to report. Crowded, filled to capacity, and regular passengers say that it's like that every morning; if there are soldiers and students, the overcrowding is simply greater.

"I already complained to Israel Railways, they have ready answers for every problem," said a passenger who boarded in Rehovot. "When I complained that they send short trains here, without enough cars, they told me that the reason is the type of license held by the locomotive drivers. Some of the drivers can't pull more than a certain number of cars."

He says that he travels on this line every morning, and he has never made the trip sitting in an upholstered seat. "It's been that way for five months already. And nobody cares, it makes no difference to anyone," he complained. (Yuval Azoulay)

Israel Railways responds

Israel Railways said in reply to the Haaretz investigation that in recent years there has been a significant increase in the number of train passengers, and therefore preparations are being made to further develop train infrastructure, including the acquisition of new rolling stock, among other things.

"In the past year dozens of passenger cars were purchased at a cost of about NIS 700 million, and at the same time new railroad lines and new stations are being built," they said. "Israel Railways continues to increase its fleet of trains, in order to reduce the overcrowding in the cars and to improve passenger service. The plan is awaiting government approval."

This refers to an acquisition plan for another 12 two-story rail cars, which will join the existing fleet of 28 such cars. The CEO of Israel Railways, Yitzhak Harel, yesterday told Haaretz that soon a tender will be published to implement the acquisition plan, but in any case, train passengers won't notice the difference for about two years, at the earliest, when the trains arrive.

Even then, according to Harel, the problem of overcrowding will not end.

"If we were to acquire equipment in accordance with demand, we would have to order twice as many trains. There's no budget," he said.

Statistics provided by Israel Railways reveal that every year there is a 10 percent increase in the number of train passengers nationwide.

"The swift development of Israel Railways creates expectations among the passengers, but you have to understand that these are long-term initiatives," said the railway. "At present the company uses all the rolling stock at its disposal during rush hours, and operates at full capacity. On Sundays and Thursdays we operate double trains with 1,800 seats ... However, it's impossible to get more trains into service because of a lack of sufficient tracks." (Yuval Azoulay)