(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Those Israelis who commute daily by train have long suspected that Israel
Railways has well and truly gone off the rails. With each day, it seems,
Railways employees do their utmost to accentuate that impression and bolster it
with yet more bizarre illustrations.
Few are the train services anywhere
that take their passengers hostage – not metaphorically but quite
Last Thursday, some 800 luckless people traveling from
Beersheba to Haifa were deliberately tortured on a muggy, hot day, by orders of
The driver moved exceedingly slowly, if at all. Time and again
he simply stopped his locomotive in the middle of nowhere by whim. The windows
were locked and the air conditioning was turned off. Commuters – among them
children, expectant mothers, the elderly and infirm – felt ill. Then the train
budged a short distance farther down the line only to stop again.
were no fewer than 20 such prolonged and suffocating halts. The passengers were
bluntly told the ride “would take as long as possible.”
continued for hours, until irate passengers improvised assorted blunt
instruments to break the windows.
Others kicked out the doors. They had
to forcefully escape their enforced confinement and then walk along the rails in
the direction of their destination – an act fraught with danger. During the
commotion several passengers were injured and one went into premature
This wasn’t the sole Israel Railways horror story of recent days.
The deliberate callousness toward paying passengers was part of an ongoing union
struggle to sabotage a management decision to allow companies that manufactured
new rail cars to also maintain them.
The union demands a monopoly. This
would have been easier to empathize with had the employees’ standards and record
thus far been sterling. But in fact their service record is shoddy to say the
least, replete with chronic delays and near-accidents.
battle about new-equipment upkeep is only the latest installment in a disturbing
saga. The union claims that the government’s endgame is privatization, which the
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.
There is no need for us here to judge
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 holds up
progress to the detriment of all of us.
Wherever justice resides in this
bitter wrangle, one thing is clear: even in the context of the most defensible
labor struggle, some tactics are plainly out of bounds.
members of the public by inflicting gratuitous suffering or outright physical
risk on them is unthinkable and unconscionable. Nonetheless, there’s no doubt
that the Beersheba-Haifa passengers were calculatingly subjected to acute
distress. This is no tolerable industrial action. This is out-and-out
endangerment for which someone ought to pay.
If no accountability is
demanded of the perpetrators of such cruel antics, then we as a society will
lose all deterrent and increasingly find ourselves at the mercy of emboldened
union bosses. It’s important to stress that Israel Railways isn’t unique. Other
powerful unions – including those at our seaports, municipalities and the Israel
Electric Corporation – haven’t shied from holding us all hostage, even if not as
directly and as blatantly as in this case.
Finally, last though hardly
least, is the crucial importance of upgrading our undeniably inferior rail
This summer’s social protests sprang from the scarcity of
affordable housing. Yet the underlying logic of supply and demand deems that the
already chock-full though desirable Central region will also be the most
expensive. In the long-run, population dispersion is indispensable, but the
periphery remains uninviting due to its distance from employment opportunities,
and commercial and cultural hubs.
These prohibitive distances need
shrinking by belatedly pulling Israel’s rail links out of the late 19th century
and bringing them into the 21st. Backward-looking/violent union politics must
not be allowed to stymie this.