Comptroller slams Israel Railways

Report cites delays in implementing recommendations, nepotism in hiring.

Train wreck 298 ch 10 (photo credit: Channel 10)
Train wreck 298 ch 10
(photo credit: Channel 10)
Although 137 people were killed and 307 injured in train accidents between 2000 and 2005, only 36 of 160 crossings had safety arrangements, the state comptroller disclosed in a special report on the Israel Railroad Company published early Wednesday morning. The Transportation Ministry had established a committee in 1999 to recommend improvements in road level train crossings. The committee submitted its recommendations in July 2002. But policing of the crossings was not increased, and no system was installed to warn drivers when a crossing was blocked. Among other serious findings in the 35-page report were the following:
  • Although the railroad company has been a government company since July 2003, the Ministry of Transportation has failed to draft a law giving it the authority to supervise and monitor its activities. The government ordered the ministry to make the necessary amendments in the law as early as July 2002. As a result, the company itself has remained the most senior authority regarding licensing, enforcement of rules, supervision and investigation of accidents.
  • In February 2004, the board of directors of the railroad company began to discuss a report on safety problems involving traffic administration, discipline, investigation of accidents and training of staff. The report was submitted to the board in August 2004, but it was only 16 months later, after the state comptroller began his investigation, that the board approved the recommendations included in the report.
  • Following a train crash at Habonim in 1985 in which 21 people, mostly school children, were killed, the government established an interministerial steering committee to deal with the problem of road level railway crossings. In the 18 years of its existence, it made no changes in the preexisting safety regulations for the crossings.
  • In 2003, the company hired 52 new assistant conductors without public tenders. In at least two cases, two of the newly hired assistant conductors did not take the required aptitude test and were relatives of railway workers.
  • In 1995, a team of public service doctors established the minimum health requirements for would-be train conductors. Since then, the requirements have not been reexamined or updated. The conductors undergo periodic health reexaminations in a haphazard way. For example, between 2002 and 2005, only 56 out of 306 of train conductors underwent health examinations.
  • In August 2002, the general manager of the company decided to establish a unit to supervise the operations of the railway. It took more than two years for the unit to be established, and it was only established for the company's passenger section. As of February 2006, there was no supervision of more than 140 freight train conductors.
  • In 2003-2004, the railway's engineering department found that in 50% of a sample of train rides that it examined, conductors had exceeded the speed limit by an average of 30%.
  • The railway company treats safety violations as disciplinary problems. Anyone accused of a violation is brought before a disciplinary committee. The details of the violation and the outcome of the hearing are filed in the records of the department to which the worker belongs. Only cases in which punishments involve a pay cut are recorded in the employee's personal file in the manpower section. Therefore, there is no centralized and comprehensive record of an employee's safety performance.
  • The minister of transportation is authorized by law to establish a committee to investigate any traffic accident involving a fatality. The minister has examined three train accidents over the past 20 years. However, there are no regulations determining how the members of the committee should be appointed, what their powers are and what action they should take.
  • The railway company also examines accidents and other incidents according to an internal procedure. However, it does not present its findings to the police even in cases in which a conductor was found negligent, he was found to have endangered the lives of passengers or others or he caused or contributed to the injury of others. The Israel Railway Company issued a response to the State Comptroller's Report, saying that "all the topics mentioned in the report are being implemented and receiving serious and comprehensive treatment." The statement included a list of faults mentioned in the report and the way the company was dealing with them. For example, it wrote that since the beginning of the year, there was complete documentation of the information regarding all road level railway crossings and how the company dealt with each one of them. The company also said it had corrected the problems pointed out by the state comptroller in its hiring policy and had given equal opportunity to all applicants for jobs as train conductors in May 2006.