Magazine

Grumpy Old Man: Passed off

CityPass, which operates Jerusalem’s light rail system, angers people with a surly crew of conductors.

Light rail, Jerusalem
Photo by: Marc Israel Sellem
My wife and I have been at odds over Jerusalem’s new light rail system. She says it’s been a failure from the start and will remain one to the finish. Grumpy as I am, I used to say that yes, it’s been a failure from the start, but someday CityPass, the company that runs it, just might figure things out.

I’m not so sure anymore.

First, full disclosure: While the lives of most, if not all, Jerusalemites were made hellish by the light rail’s construction, we live pretty much along the rail line and went through every level of hell imaginable and then some. The traffic jams, the parking problems, the noise, the dust, at all hours of the day and often at night, and a multitude of other inconveniences, some petty, others quite serious, became a way of life over the course of years. Years.

Because of our proximity, we also got to see, up close and with nauseating regularity, the utter stupidity and complete lack of foresight that seem to have guided the entire process.

A major thoroughfare dug up and repaved, dug up again and paved once more, and then dug up again and again and again, all before the first specially built machine came lurching into sight to begin the initial preparation for laying the tracks. And then the mistakes with the tracks, having to rip them out and re-lay them in long stretches. As recently as January they were replacing entire sections of the rubber strips along the rails that act as a type of bumper for the vibration induced by tons of rolling stock going by.

I wonder: Were we the world’s trial run for this thing? But now it’s up and operating. Well, pretty much. The latest problem seems to be the ticket machines. They’re complicated to use – when they work at all. And sometimes the automated ticket readers on board don’t work.

All of this leads to no small amount of confusion and consternation among passengers. Which brings us to what’s probably the light rail’s biggest problem at the moment.

CITYPASS’S PUBLIC face belongs to a cadre of conductors who patrol the cars to make sure that everything is running smoothly and – apparently even more important to the company – that everyone is playing by the rules.

The rules start with the automated ticket readers.

They’re by every door. Passengers boarding with a single- trip paper ticket must run it through a slot. Those with a prepaid plastic card called Rav-Kav (Multi-line), which can be used for multiple trips or as an unlimited monthly pass, must press it against an external sensor.

The conductors carry portable devices that read the magnetic strip on each passenger’s ticket or card. The strip shows whether it was run through the automated reader. It’s how CityPass catches scofflaws.

It’s a terrific invention because, as we all know, there is a sub-species of homo sapiens known as “wise-ass teen.” Wise-ass teen is often identifiable by its outlandish haircut and mode of dress, and by one or more metallic protrusions in the facial area. Often, it likes to impress its peers with loud sounds and acts of bravado, and one way it does this in Jerusalem these days is by hopping onto a shiny new railway car and ignoring the card reader. Pay? Me? Lately, though, the conductors have been turning their attention to the rest of us. What’s that? You got on at a station where the ticket machines didn’t work? Here’s a NIS 180 fine. That valid Rav-Kav didn’t quite trigger the automatic reader when you boarded? That’ll be NIS 180. The driver of the feeder bus you rode when connecting with the train gave you the wrong transfer? NIS 180.

We’re not talking about trouble-making passengers with spiked hair and leather jackets. We’re talking about people like you and me, people who play by the rules and pay for their tickets, people who can’t always see or speak the language well enough to understand ticket-purchasing instructions that, as it is, could rival the unabridged manual for the space shuttle.

The stories have been piling up about stone-faced and even surly conductors who hand out fines left and right. A more recent one, published on ynet.com, tells of a group of six adults and two children from out of town who wanted to ride the light rail but had no idea what to do. A helpful stranger suggested they buy the multi-pass card. So they obtained a Rav-Kav and loaded it with 20 rides.

The problem is that the Rav-Kav is non-transferable and can be pressed against the ticket reader’s sensor just once per trip. (It says so somewhere in the small print.) Having boarded, the party of eight quickly understood the problem, and seeing a conductor, one member explained the situation and told him they wanted to pay the balance.

“The conductor smiled and said, ‘No problem. I’ll take care of you,’” the out-of-towner told ynet, adding that a few minutes later he returned with four other CityPass employees. One of them told the scofflaws to get off the train. Another asked for their ID cards.

Another announced that each would be fined NIS 180.

“We were completely surprised,” the visitor said. “We asked for an explanation and the conductor told us, ‘Those are my directives. If you file a complaint they’ll probably cancel the fines.’” So yes, there’s an appeals process. But who hears the case? CityPass. Shopkeeper, cop, judge and final arbiter.

Things have gotten so bad that dozens of angry commuters recently banded together to initiate a class-action suit against the company over a seemingly cavalier policy on fines.

BEFORE THIS column went to press, CityPass’s spokesman had yet to reply to several written questions posed to him in an e-mail the previous week. One question was whether conductors receive any incentive, perhaps in the form of cash bonuses, gifts, time off, promotions or anything else, for each fine they issue. After all, it’s a policy that’s not exactly unheard of here and in many other places.

At the last minute, with the spokesman off, apparently for the intermediate days of Passover, a public relations firm in Tel Aviv – whose website mentions “crisis management” high up among its services – was rushed in to say, in the name of CityPass, “Absolutely not.”

Who knows? Maybe the company is using the fines to help recoup the astronomic losses from all the delays, screw-ups, suits and counter-suits it incurred before even getting the light rail on track. Do the math. Start with the party of eight.

According to ynet, CityPass’s reaction to the out-of-towners’ story was: “As the instructions say, the Rav- Kav is for personal use and cannot be used to pay for several passengers.”

Nice that the company knows where to look in the fine print. It doesn’t seem to know how to do much else.

Time for transparency. Either that or another form of transparency, where the light rail simply dries up and disappears.


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