At the end of my conversation with Michael Maixner, who has held the position of CEO of Israel Railways for the last two and a half years, I asked him what score he would give the organization he heads. Maixner paused, and he was not in any hurry to answer my question. When his predecessor, Shachar Ayalon, was asked the same question, he did not hesitate for a second before offering a decisive score of 9. Most passengers would presumably have given a much lower score.
Commuters on Israel’s trains have a love-hate relationship with their chosen mode of transportation. This topic brings out a full range of emotions for many of them. Ostensibly, commuting on Israel’s trains is supposed to be a comfortable, timely and reliable way to get around, just as it is in the US, Asia and Europe. But what can we do? Israel is not Europe, and most Israelis find themselves squeezed in alongside other passengers as they await their train, which oftentimes comes late and is overcrowded. Not to mention that trains aren’t running late at night or on the weekends.
Maixner has still not come up with a numerical score, and instead tells me, “What score would we be given by a mother who left her daughter alone on the train, and only realized it two stops later? Her daughter was quickly returned to her by a Israel Railways inspector. What kind of score would we receive from a family taking the train to the airport for a flight overseas, after having forgotten the pouch with the passports and cash on the train, and having it returned to them even before they entered the airport?
“Ultimately, Israel Railways is made up by four companies: Transport, Infrastructure, Cargo and Real Estate – the stations and platforms. We received a score of 100 from the Transportation Ministry, and I would give us a solid score of 95. In the area of cargo, we’re only mediocre since transport is affected by infrastructure work and because we give preference to passenger trains. With regards to the accuracy of passenger trains, we’ve reached 96%. We cannot be like Germany in every way, but we are always improving.”
Some of the improvement in service Israel Railways is aspiring to depends on the widening of the tracks and the railway’s electrification system, which has taken over two decades to implement. This has led to rail service stopping daily at 9:00 pm and closing down for weekends. This has made life much more difficult for Israelis who live in outlying cities in Israel’s north and south, since other forms of public transportation to these areas are also weak. Discussion of the electrification project began in the year 2000, with actual work on the ground beginning in 2017 at a cost of NIS 12 billion.
To this end, fifteen electric train substations were constructed that require high voltage from Israel’s Electric Company so they can match the appropriate voltage needed for the trains to run properly. In addition, garages and technical processing complexes are being set up all over the country.
“We need to make the distinction between trains with an engine car at the front, a number of cars with an end car that pushes the other cars, as opposed to the other kind of electronic train cars that don’t have an engine car with a string of additional cars that can be added to or shortened. We had to pay another NIS 7 billion so that the electrification of the tracks would not have been a waste. This project was supposed to be completed by 2020, but only the first line to Jerusalem began running that year.
“In short, we are 11 years behind the original schedule. Current estimates suggest that the project will be finished by 2031. There was also a breakdown in the relationship with the contractor, who had packed his bags and was ready to return to Spain. In 2020, a new contract was signed with the contractor and the schedule was shortened, with the electrification to be completed by 2025.
“When I became CEO, I learned that in order to build the correct electrification infrastructure from northern Israel all the way to southern Israel, you have to stop train operation, which is extremely disruptive for commuters. In 2019, Israel Railways transported 70 million passengers, and our estimate for 2025 is that this number will rise to 110 million, a rate that matches population growth in the country. If we want to keep up with this growth, we need to double the number of train tracks and augment the trains.”
Why does the electrification process take so long?
“Because in order to work on the tracks, we need to bring in heavy equipment and hundreds of workers. At five in the morning, before the trains start running for the day, we check that the tracks are free of equipment or gas balloons – just like soldiers in the IDF do when they check the road for explosives. Every item that is brought onto the tracks is documented and then again when it is removed. Trains carry an average of 1,000 passengers, except during rush hour when capacity often reaches 150%, which is equal to 600 tons, or the weight of two and a half jumbo jets. Safety is our number one priority. Any mishap could lead to a terrible tragedy.
“In the past, contractors would carry out work on the tracks for about 90 minutes, then call it a day, even though the tracks had been cleared for a full 24 hours. I, in contrast, make sure to take advantage of every hour we’ve shut down the trains, including nights and weekends, to progress as much as possible. At the current time, we are carrying out four to five hours of work, and closing down the tracks on Fridays and Saturdays so we can have a full 48 hours to work without interruption. We employ foreign workers on Shabbat, and when it’s necessary, the Ministry of Trade and Labor gives us special permits for working on Shabbat. Of course, in places like Bnei Brak we don’t ever carry out work on Shabbat.”
With regard to trains running late or not showing up at all, Maixner responds that these incidents are few and far between. “Each train transports thousands of passengers, and if three or four interruptions occur in one day, of course this is disruptive, and travelers are upset. People have told me, ‘Add a few more trains, and this will solve the congestion issue.’ I wish it were that easy, but you have to understand that the train tracks are a network, and if one train is delayed, this affects all the other trains, too. We can operate a maximum of ten trains an hour between Haifa and Tel Aviv in each direction. There’s no room to increase the frequency. We are twenty years behind in the construction of new tracks.”
The fourth track that was added to the Ayalon was expected to reduce congestion, but instead of working around the clock, Israel Railways and Netivei Israel (Nati), which were chosen to carry out the tender jointly, are busy quarreling.
“The Ayalon accounts for 80% of Israel train traffic in Israel. Every disruption on the Ayalon disrupts the timetable in the entire country, since it is the heart of the network. The fourth track was supposed to facilitate 30% more train traffic. Nati was offered the tender in 2012 during a conversation, and in my opinion, there was a lack of understanding of train infrastructure and operations. We believe that the fourth track needs to be built. The proposal I submitted to the director general of the Ministry of Transportation was worded respectfully and should not put a stop to the construction being carried out by Nati. Unfortunately, though, construction of the fourth track is now estimated to be completed only by 2030 instead of 2025.”
Maixner, 63, who holds a BSc in mechanical engineering, as well as an MBA, headed the Merkava Tank Development Authority and head of the Motorized Systems Department in the Technology Unit of the IDF’s Technology and Logistics Division. Upon retirement from the IDF, he was appointed CEO of Merkavim. Twelve years later, he began managing a metal recycling company, and before he was appointed CEO of Israel Railways, he worked as CEO of Imco Industries.
We can assume that when he took up his current position, Maixner understood that he would become the address for the public’s complaints, since he is considered the person responsible for the fact that they are late to work every day. “At the end of the day, I am choosing what I believe to be the best option available. I appreciate the public and thank them for their patience. We’ve received many complaints, but also a significant amount of praise also. I appreciate all of our employees, and thank them for their dedication.”
Why aren’t the trains’ timetables synced with the timetables of public buses? People who take the train end up waiting half an hour or more for their bus to come.
“We are making headway in this area. For example, in Ashkelon, the bus drivers at the bus terminal know in real time when the train arrives. In Afula, we’ve arranged for shuttle buses to take passengers to the hospital, and in Bnei Brak shuttles run back and forth to the industrial area. Our main goal has always been to provide the best quality service to passengers.”
In many cities around the world, people are encouraged to ride their bicycles to the train. Here in Israel, however, passengers arriving with bicycles are given a hard time.
“We encourage people to travel by bicycle, and yet unfortunately the congestion on trains during rush hour makes it so that there is not enough room for passengers to bring their bicycles on the trains during those hours. We’ve turned the lower floor of train cars into urban cars with standing room only. We’ve removed all the tables and chairs in order to provide space for the maximum number of travelers. Our plan is to have 140 urban cars. Some cars will be dedicated especially for bicycles.”
Maixner jokes that each one of the three years he’s now been at Israel Railways feels like a dog year, which is equivalent to seven human years. “I barely have time to go home at night, but I’m not complaining. This work is full of challenges, and I feel like we’ve achieved a great deal. Our leadership is made up of experienced and talented individuals. The current term will end in two years’ time. It’s still too early to guess what might happen by then.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.