The great train robbery

Groups motivated by self-interest are pushing the train forward. Some of them represent companies abroad that manufacture train cars and tracks, while others are economists and engineers looking for work.

Politicians love nothing more than investing in trains. They claim it's the most socially conscientious thing out there, the way to bring people in outlying rural areas closer to the center of the country, the most environmentally friendly thing because it reduces air pollution and does away with traffic jams. It's also good for the politician's image because he turns into "an initiator" and "a doer" and is considered "hard working."

As finance minister, Benjamin Netanyahu went blindly after these superlatives associated with trains and adopted them. Uri Yogev, who was then the treasury official responsible for budgets, prodded Netanyahu onto these dangerous tracks. Yogev now serves as Netanyahu's senior economic adviser.

Groups motivated by self-interest are pushing the train forward. Some of them represent companies abroad that manufacture train cars and tracks, while others are economists and engineers looking for work. They disseminate false information to the public. Yet every time we inaugurate a new train line, it's clear the cost is twice that originally calculated, passenger numbers are half that originally estimated, and the travel duration is twice that expected.

The line to Jerusalem serves as an example. The current line was revived a few years ago at a high cost, yet only a few hundred people use it every week. The line is long, meandering and painfully slow. The trip from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (with a transfer at Beit Shemesh) drags on for two hours, kind of like the Jezreel Valley railway.

In 2005, the powers that be decided to upgrade the line. In other words, throw good money after bad. The authorities decided to build a new, fast and modern line to Jerusalem, a line passing through Shaar Haguy, along huge bridges and stone-adorned tunnels. But the project stalled because a budget of NIS 3.8 billion jumped to NIS 7 billion, and the state, after all, has a limit to its wastefulness.

There is, of course, another way to encourage the use of public transportation, but it's far less glamorous. We could pave a new lane on the highway betweeen Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for modern buses powered by natural gas. It could be quick, cheap and flexible. It would also more environmentally sound and damage the landscape less. But this solution is too logical, too simple. It lacks the aura of a transportation revolution.

Perhaps a train is efficient for a large country with great distances, but not for a small country. After all, travelers don't solely calculate the time of travel, they consider the "door-to-door" factor, which depends on the time needed to get to the train station, the frequency of trains, the time waiting for the train, and late arrivals. In such a case, short distances are a disadvantage.

Israel is not Britain, France or the United States. Routes between cities in these countries can reach 500 kilometers, the entire length of our country. In addition, experience has proved that trains do not reduce the number of cars on highways, but substitute for buses instead.

Professors Ilan Salomon, Eran Feitelson and Yossi Berechman, three experts on public transportation systems and the environment, published a series of articles (printed in Haaretz in January 2004) analyzing the grandiose Netanyahu-Yogev plan to expand the train infrastructure at a cost of NIS 20 billion. The professors proved that buses were preferable to trains in all respects. But who cares about expert opinion when political and image considerations are the ones that count?

Now we're hearing the same thing in Netanyahu and Yogev's second go-around. They are once again recommending that the train infrastructure be expanded to lay a route akin to the 19th-century line from Rosh Pina to Eilat, Haifa to Tiberias. The same slogans are being uttered, the ones about connecting every city with a population above 50,000 to the national network. Once again, NIS 10 billion will be wasted, while Highway 6 has yet to be completed, neither in the north nor in the south.

Public transportation here needs an upgrade, but Israel is more suited for an efficient, nationwide bus system and trains that cater to the suburbs in the congested center. A "network of trains from Dan to Eilat" is not suitable here because it is expensive, inefficient and inflexible. It would be so expensive that it would make more sense to drive each person in a private limousine rather than pour in billions of shekels.

In a small country like Israel, one with serious budget problems, Netanyahu and Yogev should re-examine the feasibility of such a massive investment in trains as opposed to a far simpler and efficient move: upgraded buses traveling in their own lanes, even if buses lack a certain political and image sex appeal.

Netanyahu knows that the public likes to hear about investments in trains. It reminds everyone of the heroic conquering of the West in the United States. Trains also let officials hold ribbon-cutting ceremonies. It makes for a much better photo-op. That's why it is so attractive to the politicians.