Israel Railways: A tale of failures across the board

The dispute between the management and the union is only the tip of the iceberg of much more complex structural and strategic problems that Israel Railways has faced over the past years.

TRANSPORTATION MINISTER Israel Katz (front) and employees of China Railway Engineering Corporation take part in an event marking the beginning of underground construction work of the light rail, using a tunnel boring machine, in Tel Aviv in February 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS)
TRANSPORTATION MINISTER Israel Katz (front) and employees of China Railway Engineering Corporation take part in an event marking the beginning of underground construction work of the light rail, using a tunnel boring machine, in Tel Aviv in February 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Israeli media landscape is usually dominated by several recurring subjects that occupy the local population’s mind – clashes and military operations in Gaza; Iran’s nuclear ambitions and entrenchment in Syria; and the unsuccessful attempts to topple Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Recently, however, one issue has occupied Israel’s public and media like no other: the ongoing strikes, delays and cancellations of trains across the country, leaving passengers in doubt whether they can rely on the train as a mode of transportation.
Every glitch that can be traced back to Israel Railways and its powerful workers union is featured heavily in newspapers, igniting fiery discussions over who is to be held accountable for the chaotic handling of the accumulating problems.
At the center of controversy stands the Israel Railways workers union, which most media outlets and large segments of Israelis blame for the spat that is raging between it and the management of the government-owned corporation.
In September, 35 train operators called in sick, the same as in February, which threw train operations in the North into total chaos.
In March, service was shut down for five minutes (with the instruction to do so given by the union over the communication system and then leaked to the media) and in another incident lines from Rishonim to Tel Aviv and from Carmiel to Hof Carmel were halted as well.
The eight-month period of mudslinging between the union and management, at the losing end of which always stands the public, climaxed on Friday, April 12, when it was suddenly announced at 8 a.m. that all rail service countrywide had been stopped.
Thousands of Israelis were left stranded. Soldiers trying to make their way home for a well-deserved weekend had to spend hours of that short “vacation” waiting next to the tracks. So did civilians wanting to enjoy a weekend getaway and any other persons wanting to get to work (some people do work on Fridays), home, to the beach or anywhere else.
The shutdown went on for about an hour and a half, leading to over 80 cancellations and even more delays after service was resumed.
What raised the ire of the population even more was when they found out the reason such a severe step was taken: the inability to find replacements for two traffic managers who had called in sick.
The management immediately accused the union of orchestrating the event to hurt the corporation and force Israel Railways to give in to the union’s demands.
Management said that eight traffic managers, representing half of the company’s traffic managers, called in sick simultaneously.
The union, in turn, blamed the management for being responsible for the thousands of stranded passengers because it could not find replacements for two sick workers.
“A strategy to incite the flames against the employees instead of taking responsibility for its failures,” was how union chairwoman Gila Edri characterized it in a video message.
Edri, whose role as leader of the workers union is to represent the interest of the company’s employees, seems to have taken center-stage in the union’s scandalous behavior.
She was elected chairwoman in 2017, yet not as her first term. Edri served in the same capacity between 2010 and 2012, when she was ousted because she was found acting in contempt of the labor court after getting there in the first place by way of applying questionable means.
A veteran employee, in an anonymous interview with Ynet shortly after the Friday incident, criticized Edri heavily and held her responsible for “criminal and illegal” strikes and other measures that were used to enforce her demands.
He said that the workers union was leading the corporation to a “dark and difficult place” that brought justified hate and anger on the employees by the public, admitting that staff calling in sick, stopping trains mid-track to relieve themselves (yes, that was an argument made) and other problematic measures hurting passengers, were by direct instruction of the union.
According to him, the union was not operating in the interest of employees at all, instead holding them hostage to their power.
He said that Edri hadn’t learned the lesson from being ousted in her first term.
Edri enjoys backing from the Histadrut labor federation, but the same anonymous employee said that the Histadrut did so to ensure its income, which stood at about NIS 140-170 monthly for each of the 3,500 Israel Railways workers, equaling an average sum of over NIS 6.5 million a year.
THE DEMANDS that (don’t) warrant this behavior are as shrouded in mystery as everything else going on with Israel Railways.
Management has taken steps to reform the company’s efficiency of operations, which include an addition of 15 minutes in the working arrangements, much to the displeasure of the union, which doesn’t hesitate to strike in order to display their resistance.
In interviews with Ynet, interim CEO Uri Sahrir claimed that it is about money and control. The union’s spokesperson, Naama Katzir Shmueli, said it’s about working conditions and safety. Both agree that the other’s claims are false.
Shmueli claimed operators must run a series of safety checks between each train run, which leaves them without sufficient repose time to ensure they can continue ensuring the safety of 1,000 passengers they are carrying at any point.
Sahrir, who called the measures taken by the union illegal, maintained that safety measures are impeccable with train operators undergoing scrupulous training ensuring they are qualified and capable of guaranteeing passengers’ safety, on top of which systems were in place that considered mistakes made by the operators.
Of eight- to nine-hour work shifts, Shmueli claimed some six hours are actual travel time, while management insists that until now working conditions were lax, that actual travel time on a shift averaged about four hours, and ample resting time was given within the shifts.
The slow-moving transition from diesel to electric trains was also a subject of disagreement. The union claims that operation of electric trains warrants higher salaries, while the management says it actually eases working conditions.
Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz backed Israel Railways management’s decision to shut down rail service in April and called on it to turn to the labor court to reinstate the traffic managers and to take measures against Edri.
“I intend to take all necessary steps to stop these grave incidents,” Katz promised.
This led the management and union to labor court, which decided on April 18 that it forbade all organizational steps be taken by the union for two months and demanded that the two parties hold intensive negotiations over that time. Negotiations were supposed to start May 2.
On April 30, however, the workers union filed a NIS 1 million lawsuit against management, for what it claimed was defamation surrounding the April 12 shutdown. The union maintained that management purposely halted service to pin responsibility on the union and incite public opinion against it.
THE DISPUTE between the management and the union is only the tip of the iceberg of much more complex structural and strategic problems that Israel Railways has faced over the past years. The current spat is nothing but the natural outcome of the systemic failures that amounted to a NIS 340m. net loss in 2018.
The current chaos may have its roots in the 80% increase in the number of passengers since 2010, a figure that Israel Railways underestimated year after year. According to the state comptroller’s reports leading up to 2017, as reported by The Marker in March, the company underestimated forecasts regarding the number of passengers for five consecutive years, missing it by up to 25%. Before 2016, the report claims, forecast errors were around 9-10%. In more recent years, erroneous forecasts surpassed 20%.
Estimates are a central part of the multi-year plan the company submits to the Transportation Ministry. They are used as one of the parameters on which the ministry bases allocated budget for equipment purchase and infrastructure expansion. Lines such as the Nahariya-Tel Aviv-Modi’in route already reached 130% of occupancy rates, causing passengers to spend long trips standing and some not being able to board the train at all. The company has not only significantly missed its forecasts, but also showed itself unable to learn from previous mistakes.
What seems to be a chronic lack of planning and strategy is reflected not only in missed estimates, but in the number of cancellations and delays as well – figures that cannot be blamed on current strikes, since they date back to 2017.
The number of train cancellations increased by an astounding rate of 473% between the years 2015 to 2017, reaching up to 10,000 cancellations a year. Significant delays (according to the report, above six minutes) increased by 44%. Some 300 hours of delays were recorded in March 2019 alone, according to Calcalist, compared to 183 hours of delays in March 2018.
A young transportation planner and frequent commuter, who asked to remain anonymous, also lamented the lack of thought that went into the construction of the new Jerusalem station.
“Passengers with disabilities, strollers or luggage (many travel to and from the airport) find a host of obstacles that substantially worsen their travel experience, such as steps on the trains, a lack of storage space for luggage and bad management of the security checkpoint at the station entrance,” he remarked.
While he maintained that the frequent delays and cancellations can be accredited to the growing pains of such a big national infrastructure project, he said that “a host of well-established planning standards were not implemented, keeping potential riders off the train.”
The comptroller’s report, however, refrained from placing sole responsibility for the past years’ mishaps on the company. The Transportation Ministry’s National Infrastructure Committee plays an important role in the railway’s convoluted situation. According to the report, both the ministry and the company have purchased technically outdated carriages in an emergency procedure to respond to the accelerated increase in demand.
In December 2016, the company submitted an urgent request to the Transportation and Finance Ministries for the purchase of 60 carriages, to be supplied by the beginning of 2017, the Marker reported according to the comptroller report. The Finance Ministry warned the company against last-minute purchases in order to avoid acquiring equipment through non-competitive procedures. Yet the request was fulfilled, given the grave equipment shortage. The company subsequently purchased the carriages not only through non-competitive procedures, but due to the emergency they faced they could only be supplied with technically outdated carriages of similar technology to the ones purchased from 2002 through 2006. This episode, whose degree of unprofessionalism, miscalculation and lack of planning would serve to any functional company as a great lesson to be learned and avoided, was repeated in April 2017, when the company again submitted and ordered 33 carriages in an urgent procedure.
Naturally, Israel Railways’ failures were clearly reflected in the company’s annual financial report – a net loss of nearly NIS 340m. was recorded in 2018, compared to a loss of NIS 42m. in 2017 and a profit of NIS 150m. in 2016. According to a March report by TheMarker, the increase in losses was mainly due to the Railways’ weak cargo sector and the decrease in the incentive subsidy. The same report claimed that in 2018 the company received a total subsidy of NIS 1.4b. for the passenger sector and NIS 144m. for the cargo sector, which is responsible for transporting 8.5 million tons of merchandise a year. Before the outbreak of the worker strikes, the first three quarters of 2018 registered a loss of NIS 60m. in the cargo sector, one of the sectors whose terminals were in suspension by the workers’ committee.
Jaron Kollmann, who commutes from Jerusalem to Herzliya several times a week, recalled an amusing anecdote that illustrates the lack of organization that goes into planning at all levels of the company.
He recollected how, when he was traveling on the new Jerusalem-Ben-Gurion Airport line while it was in its test phase and free of charge, an inspector was making his way through the carriage. When asked if he would get fined for not having a ticket on the free train, the inspector just replied that he shouldn’t ask questions and he was just doing as he was told.
Any company would be delighted to register demand increases of 80% in a span of less than 10 years. Israel Railways, in cooperation with the Transportation Ministry, failed to anticipate, adjust and situate the company in a way that it could service the need of the population and create a mutual profit for both passengers and the corporation. This might be the reason for the formation of a rebellious workers union that does not hesitate to hold its own employees, company, and finally, passengers hostage to a small group of agitators.
No change is in sight in this sea of misfortunes, leaving one main loser to pick up the pieces: passengers who just want to rely on trains to arrive and transport them on time.