Something Is Rotten With the Railways

Railway workers are afraid that the Canadians will show them up when they begin working on the new coaches with standards of professionalism and safety that the Israeli workers do not have.

Where have all the neosocialists disappeared to? Where are all the knights of the public sector hiding? Why don't they come out and say now: Look at the railways, it's the model of a government company that lives and acts according to all the rules of neosocialism - the workers committee controls it rather than the management, the workers enjoy full tenure, their salaries are decent and paid on time, they have a good, respectable pension and good social conditions. Therefore it is obvious that the public will get excellent service: trains that arrive on time, without accidents, without mishaps, without strikes, and that everything will go like clockwork as is accepted practice in a socialist paradise.

But if that doesn't happen, the neosocialists say to themselves, the fault is certainly that of the treasury that "dried up" the railways and didn't transfer appropriate budgets to it in time. But that excuse is not pertinent either, because it transpires that no government (or private ) body here has had the privilege of receiving so many billions from the state in recent years - for equipping itself, for its operation, for renewal and modernization. However even the billions did not help.

If that is the case then perhaps the reason for the bad and dangerous service that Israel Railways provides is the neosocialist model under which the government decides everything, appoints everyone, and is also the owner and the regulator? Perhaps it is precisely that system that has brought the railways to this embarrassing low point, where it supplies the public with chronic late arrivals, embarrassing mishaps, dangerous accidents and also all-too-often work sanctions and strikes, without caring?

Make no mistake here. The disgrace that took place this week at the labor tribunal is not the main point. It is indeed shameful and contrary to the rule of law, but the main point is the control that the workers committee has, and the low standard of safety that jeopardizes human lives.

The railways management still remembers with terror and fear the series of accidents that took place about a year ago, which caused Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz to wake up in April 2011 and demand that the railways present a comprehensive plan for improving safety.

Katz knows that a bus driver who takes 40 passengers has to undergo more professional training and comprehensive tests than a train driver who has 800 passengers. He also knows that there is a big chance that the train driver got his position thanks to some family connections with a member of the committee. After all, everyone knows that nepotism rules in the railways and that there are too many "relatives" and "family members" who are not suited to their tasks.

Following Katz's ultimatum, the railways management presented its "safety plan" in August, but no binding schedule and safety measures were fixed for it. Even the critical issue of outsourcing the upkeep of the new coaches to a Canadian company that specializes in this sphere was not mentioned in the safety plan.

And that is the main subject on the agenda: Who will do the maintenance work on the new coaches, the railways employees or the Canadian company? This is in essence a battle over control of the company - who will be in charge, director general Boaz Zafrir or workers committee head Gila Edri? The management wants maintenance to be in the hands of the Canadian Bombardier firm from which 150 new coaches were recently acquired. But Edri wants the railway employees to take charge of maintenance.

The problem is that the existing maintenance system in the railways, because its level is insufficient, is not capable of dealing efficiently and safely with the new coaches - and that means that human lives are being endangered. The railway workers are afraid that the Canadians will show them up when they begin working on the new coaches with standards of professionalism and safety that the Israeli workers do not have.

Even Katz, who does not want an argument with the workers since many of them are Likud supporters, said recently: "To my great regret, Israel Railways is simply not suited to meet the challenge of expansion that it will have to face."

His ministry's former director general Brig. Gen. (Res. ) Dan Harel, who recently left his post, put it more bluntly: "If there were a unit in the Israel Defense Forces with a standard of maintenance and preparedness like this, it would have been shut down."

So what is the transportation minister waiting for? For a huge train disaster that will force him to deal with the problem seriously? Is he not afraid of the report that will follow from the state comptroller?

Read this article in Hebrew