Starting on January 5, a public transport revolution will take place in Beit Shemesh. Egged, which now runs all the buses in the area, will hand over the steering wheel to Superbus, a private company that is currently responsible primarily for bus services in and around Ramle. The tender for operating buses in the Beit Shemesh-Jerusalem corridor is part of the Transportation Ministry's desire to open public transport to competition, thereby improving services and reducing the cost to the public and the state. Superbus will take over all the routes between Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem with the exception of the "mehadrin" 418 route to and from Ramat Beit Shemesh and the non-mehadrin 417, which also serves Ramat Beit Shemesh. The existing 415, 416 and 420 routes will keep the same numbers to avoid confusion. Superbus has announced that buses will run at least as frequently as Egged's current service - every 10 to 15 minutes in rush hours and every half hour throughout the day. The buses will continue to use the same departure bays in the Jerusalem central bus station. The 411 route from Beit Shemesh to Tel Aviv will also be operated by Superbus, as will the 25, 26 and 27 routes from Beit Shemesh to the surrounding moshavim. Some new routes to the moshavim will be introduced. A new route from Beit Shemesh to Modi'in will also be inaugurated, probably about two months after the other services are up and running. Currently, although the two towns are less than 20 km. apart, there is no direct bus service between them. For the operation of its routes in Beit Shemesh and the Jerusalem corridor, the company has acquired some 70 new buses that comply with the strict Euro 4 environmental standard, and it will employ dozens of drivers and operating staff from the region. Fears have been expressed that Superbus will not be able to provide as good a service as Egged. It is no secret that residents of the Modi'in Illit/Hashmonaim area, today served by Superbus's mehadrin services, have plenty of complaints. Gadi Ohana, media and strategy consultant for Superbus, acknowledges that there have been many problems with the mehadrin services, but the company has learnt from its mistakes and things are better now. However, not everyone is convinced of the improvements. Ezriel Yellin of Moshav Matityahu says, "We use Superbus for the Modi'in Illit-Jerusalem and the Modi'in Illit-Bnei Brak lines. Service is not good. Most of the drivers that I met are not pleasant. The schedule is more of a wishlist or a prophecy that we hope will one day come true. Customer service is an oxymoron. Sadly, because they are not Egged, the Ministry of Transport does not take any complaints seriously. Instead of taking this alleged service, my wife drives me to the train station in Modi'in; at least Israel Railways apologizes when it makes a mistake." Ohana says in response that the residents of Beit Shemesh should take as their model Superbus's non-haredi services in Shoham and Ramle-Lod. Passengers waiting for buses in the Ramle central bus station on Sunday were also quick to condemn the Superbus service. "It's terrible. Buses leave early or late, whenever they feel like it," said a woman who gave her name as Shulamit. "It's a thousand times worse than Egged. Sometimes it doesn't come at all." However, during a random period of 20 minutes, all scheduled Superbus departures, both intercity and rural, left punctually. When news of the proposed change was announced, many Beit Shemesh residents, the majority of whom are not haredi, were worried that Superbus would be a "mehadrin" operation, with women - conforming to a haredi dress code - forced to sit at the back of the bus. This view probably arose from the fact that Superbus does indeed run mehadrin buses to the haredi town of Modi'in Illit. However, the bulk of the company's operations are in the Shoham and Ramle-Lod areas, where it has been running standard "secular" buses since 2002. The Superbus routes serving the Beit Shemesh area (with the exception of the existing mehadrin route from Ramat Beit Shemesh to Modi'in Illit) will not be mehadrin. A major revolution will be the introduction of "smartcards" for payment of fares. Cards are personal to the holder, bearing his or her name and a photograph. The card is "loaded" with a sum of money of the owner's choosing, and each time the passenger boards a bus the driver will "swipe" the card to deduct the appropriate amount for the fare. A paper ticket will be issued, so passengers can check that no mistake has been made, and they will have something to present for tax purposes. The driver will tell the passenger when the amount left on the card is getting low, so it can be topped up with more money. It will be possible to load the cards at the information points around Beit Shemesh (see box) and also on the buses themselves. Superbus CEO Eli Balilius says, "The smartcard is part of a new and improved system of public transport for the residents of Beit Shemesh and the Jerusalem corridor. The smartcard will reduce to a minimum the amount of time necessary for boarding buses and will relieve drivers of the need to get involved with cash." Of course, it will be possible to use the buses without a smartcard, by paying cash in the normal way, but the Superbus management hopes that regular passengers will take advantage of the smartcard, thereby speeding up bus boarding times. ON A recent morning at the Egged depot in Beit Shemesh, bus drivers seemed unanimous in their condemnation of Superbus. The general feeling among the drivers is that Superbus has a bad name and doesn't treat its drivers well. David, who declined to give his surname, says he has been working for Egged for more than 30 years, and he and his colleagues consider Egged to be their "home." Egged is the best, he says, and he pities "the passengers, who will suffer from Superbus's poor punctuality record." David and his friends at the depot have no intention of going to work for Superbus. They'll continue with Egged, driving the 417 and 418 from Ramat Beit Shemesh to Jerusalem and back. The drivers of Moniot Ha'ir Beit Shemesh, which provides a sherut service between Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh, are not at all bothered by the new competition. Moshe Ohana, the company's dispatcher, says it won't affect them at all. Meir Biton, one of the drivers, says there will be enough work for everyone.

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