Transportation Minister Israel Katz inside the electric locomotive that hauled test train on January 15, 2018.
(photo credit: TRANSPORATION MINISTRY)
‘We have launched an unprecedented revolution in transportation – trains, roads, intersections, bridges, tunnels,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in his speech at the meeting kicking off the Knesset’s new session Monday.
That evening, the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem train got stuck in a tunnel for over an hour, with 150 passengers trapped inside.
That was far from the first breakdown on the new rail line. The next morning, more trains were canceled because of glitches. The train seems to be working on an alternating schedule: One day it works, the next day it malfunctions.
Those are bugs. Other problems with the train are features.
When the new Jerusalem-Tel Aviv line was launched last month, it was “overdue and incomplete,” as The Jerusalem Post’s Eytan Halon reported. It took 17 years to build, and it still does not stretch directly from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv; the train stops at Ben-Gurion Airport, where passengers have to switch trains. It is still not running at the planned high speed – and only runs every half hour, instead of every 15 minutes. And the section that branches off to Modi’in is not near completion. In addition, it is expected to cost NIS 7 billion, more than twice as much as originally budgeted.
But at least the view is nice.
None of these blatantly obvious problems stopped Netanyahu and Transportation Minister Israel Katz from holding a ribbon-cutting ceremony and calling it “historic.”
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And more importantly, none of these problems stopped Israel Railways from having the incomplete, faulty train run throughout the day, despite the great cost and danger to the public.
Some analysts have hailed the train despite its problems. Certainly railways in major cities like New York, Washington, DC, or London have issues. And many commuters around the world have to change trains in the middle of their ride to work.
Those arguments would make sense if this was a train that was running properly and efficiently in the first place. Anyone who wants to get to the airport from Jerusalem, or wants to travel to Tel Aviv, is taking a serious bet on whether they’ll make it in a timely manner – as opposed to other transit systems, which people love to hate, but still do what they’re supposed to the vast majority of the time.
This train is supposed to help commuters, not just be an attraction for rail aficionados. Yet, at this point, it is more efficient to wait on line for the bus and then sit in traffic between the two cities, than to take the train. The 480 bus leaves every 10 minutes, while the train leaves every 30 minutes. There is no need to switch buses, allowing passengers to doze off on the way, and not risk missing the train to Jerusalem if the train to the airport is late. And bus breakdowns are rarer by far than the problems on the train since its opening.
The morning after Netanyahu’s speech hailing his achievements, including the train, former Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz tweeted that he had been planning to take the train to Jerusalem, but heard that some had been canceled because of problems on the line, so he took a bus.
“When there is no trust, then public transportation cannot succeed,” Horowitz warned.
The public has clearly lost trust in the train. Netanyahu and Katz would have been much better off waiting for it to actually be finished before they decided to publicly fete it. Since most commuters are taking the bus rather than taking a risk on the train anyway, why run a half-baked line that only increases frustration at government incompetence?
While 17 years is far too long to build this train line, Israelis can wait a bit longer for the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv line to truly be complete. When that happens, we are optimistic that it can be a model of speedy efficiency that will help thousands of commuters each day and make travel easier for Israel’s millions of tourists.
But until then, this is not the revolution Netanyahu and Katz promised.
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