Off the rails

Even in the 21st century there’s an undeniably intrinsic correlation between railroad expansion and a country’s development and prosperity.

February 15, 2012 22:43
3 minute read.
A TRAIN crosses the Strings Bridge, Jerusalem

Jerusalem light rail on bridge 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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If God had meant for us to fly, says an antiquated adage, he wouldn’t have given us the railways. In today’s Israel, however, it almost works the other way.

If we don’t resort to air travel precedents, we won’t be able to commute by rail.

Even in the 21st century there’s an undeniably intrinsic correlation between railroad expansion and a country’s development and prosperity. But improved rail services in Israel are stymied by one extraordinarily militant and unrestrained union. This union blatantly undermines even the daily operation of already existing links.

On Monday night it launched yet another strike. Three union bosses were fined for gross contempt of court. They didn’t show up for scheduled hearings and brazenly delayed restoration of services by a full work day in contravention of three explicit injunctions.

Hence the air-transportation precedents should be emulated.

In 1981, US president Ronald Reagan didn’t hesitate to fire thousands of air traffic controllers after they walked off the job, seeking to disrupt America’s entire aviation system to coerce the federal government to accede to their pay demands. To the union’s consternation, Reagan’s contingency plan functioned smoothly, minimizing the strike’s effects, with supervisors, nonstriking controllers and military controllers manning airport towers. The decision to break up what malfunctioned and start over vindicated itself.

Another relevant precedent was made not long later, right here in Israel. In 1982, following protracted periods of labor unrest, interminable wrangles and work stoppages, the operations of our national airline, El Al, were suspended. The government appointed Amram Blum to run the company, which had accrued gargantuan losses.

Operations resumed under receivership in 1983. Within four years, El Al was profitable again. By 2003 its highly successful privatization began.

There’s a lesson in both these examples on how to deal with the intolerable disputes that cripple state-owned Israel Railways, whose trains are chronically subject to overcrowding, delays and breakdowns. The management can’t get a handle on things and the union is so unruly that it stooped to no less than holding passengers hostage.

Last September 22, some 800 luckless individuals traveling from Beersheba to Haifa were deliberately tortured on a muggy, hot day by orders of the union. Their train was arbitrarily stopped 20 times during the journey in the middle of nowhere, with windows locked and the air-conditioning turned off. The ordeal continued for hours until irate commuters kicked down the doors.

Such deliberate callousness toward paying passengers features boldly among ongoing union tactics to sabotage a management decision to allow companies that manufactured new rail cars to also maintain them.

The union demands monopoly. This would have been easier to empathize with had the employees’ standards and record thus far been sterling. But, in fact, numerous recent near-accidents are blamed on shoddy in-house workmanship and slapdash repairs.

Moreover, the battle about new equipment upkeep is only the latest installment in a disconcerting saga. The union claims that the government’s endgame is privatization, which the government denies. For its part, the government accuses the union of obstructing vital reforms to preserve the sinecures and attendant vested interests of a small group that controls the works committee and hands out positions to cronies and relatives.

We need not determine who is right – whether the employees are justly fighting for their jobs or whether the government is indeed out to bust a nepotistic ring that impedes progress to the detriment of us all.

The bottom line is that familiar old Israel Railways has well and truly gone off the rails. Nothing short of drastic measures can conceivably fix it. The cost of temporarily suspending train services would be negligible compared to the damage already inflicted by recurrent trouble-making.

Israel Railways’ abysmally failed package must be undone and placed under court-appointed administrators.

Its closure will make it possible to sack all employees.

A new, overhauled corporate entity might subsequently rehire whomever it chooses on its terms.

Afterward, we might, perhaps, be able to conclude that if God meant us to fly, he also meant for us to ride on Israel Railways.

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