Who Will Be the Train Driver?

Despite the problematic incidents that occurred recently, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz preferred not to make waves. He wanted quiet.

It's hard to understand Yitzhak (Haki ) Harel, the director general of Israel Railways. What does he want from the workers? How does he fail to understand that these are devoted workers who want only the good of the railway and the public? Why is he accusing them of personal interests, nepotism, sabotage, endangering human life, an increase in the number of malfunctions and the many delays? Doesn't he know that a government monopoly, like the railway, is the best business structure possible?

Look how the railway has improved since the new workers' committee, headed by Gila Edri, was elected in August 2010. The level of punctuality declined from 90 percent to 82 percent; this means more delays and abuse of passengers waiting in vain at the stations. And this week, after the workers' committee crudely violated the court order and didn't return to work on time, the employees continued with their sit-down strike.

On Sunday, at the Beit Yehoshua station, two morning trains were unexpectedly canceled. The third arrived extremely crowded, to the point where it couldn't be boarded. The passengers were so furious that they stood at the train doorways and preventing the doors from closing. But nothing helped. They once again arrived two hours late for work.

The railway employees were not impressed; none of them will be investigated, neither their salaries nor their tenure will suffer. But Edri didn't hesitate to say yesterday in court: "We're with the public, we understand it, we don't cause the disruptions."

Edri is so devoted to the public that she is unwilling to allow any handling of the safety issue. She is opposed to activating the safety inspection department, which was supposed to begin operating in January. She is not satisfied with the appointments made in the department, without her approval and without "her people." The school for railroad professions was also closed by Edri because Harel recently dared to carry out two appointments not to her liking. In her opinion, Harel is nothing more than a conditional director, and the condition is that she will direct along with him.

Let there be no mistake here: The lives of train passengers are in danger. See the 2006 State Comptroller's report and the frightening series of accidents that occurred recently. In December 2010 cars caught fire in the Beit Yehoshua area. Afterward there was a problem with the brakes in the Be'er Yaakov area, in early 2011 there was a diesel fuel leak at the Rishonim station. Later there were brake problems at Shavei Zion and at the Ben-Gurion International Airport station. The climax was the train collision south of Netanya on April 7, in which 50 people were injured.

Edri wants to take the railway backward, to the pre-Harel era. During those happy days no action was taken without the approval of the workers' committee. Most of the new employees who were hired were family members. Promotion depended on connections with the workers' committee, and it was impossible to hire managers under personal contracts. The corporation was in effect run by the workers' committee rather than the director general, and the railway was the least efficient organization in the world.

A report prepared by the TASC consulting firm revealed that there is a large manpower surplus at Israel Railways, an inefficient maintenance system, high maintenance costs and a low availability rate of trains. The number of employees is triple the international average. In other words, hundreds of the 2,200 employees are superfluous. The public is maintaining them at its expense, against its will.

Despite the problematic incidents that occurred recently, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz preferred not to make waves. He wanted quiet. But the accident in Netanya shocked him. Katz understood that when the next accident occurs the blame will fall mainly on him, and because he doesn't want to go down as a failure he is now determined to do everything possible to improve the level of safety on the railway, in spite of Edri.

For that purpose he must establish an external supervising authority, like the one for civil aviation, because the present situation is absurd - with more supervision and regulation for a bus driver than for a locomotive engineer who transports 20 times as many passengers.

The big question now is: Will the government withstand the pressures and vilifications of Edri and Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini? Will it back Harel so that he can work to improve service and safety? It depends on Katz. It also depends on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.