Jerusalem light rail on bridge 311.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
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
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
Hence the air-transportation precedents should be
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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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