Speed up the trains

Netanyahu's overhaul of the country’s mass transit system will pull Israel’s rail links out of the late 19th century and bring them into the 21st.

‘This is first and foremost an achievement for the State of Israel. For the first time in 62 years of independence, the government has taken steps to connect the Negev and Galilee to the heartland,”  Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu summed up, after the cabinet approved by a 19-4 majority the “Israel Routes” plan  – the country’s most comprehensive transportation reform.
Israel’s peripheral regions are in danger of losing their youngest and brightest to the bright lights of Tel Aviv and its sprawling metropolitan area. Greater Tel Aviv isn’t only trendy; it’s also where more and better jobs are to be found, along with cultural and leisure-time attractions, shopping, and so on.
Fewer jobs and opportunities elsewhere push the upwardly mobile set out of the more outlying areas, while the Coastal Plain magnet simultaneously draws them.
Such seemingly inexorable socioeconomic dynamics are plainly bad for Israel. Entire expanses of the state would be emptied, while the Gedera-Hadera stretch becomes ever more densely packed. At the most basic level, jamming so much of the population inside exceedingly narrow perimeters renders Israel’s center a nightmarishly soft underbelly and a strategic security hazard.
The answer lies in mundane solutions like belatedly pulling Israel’s rail links out of the late 19th century and bringing them into the 21st. Improvement in public conveyances will shrink distances and demolish psychological barriers to residence away from the country’s economic and cultural hubs. These hubs must be made physically more accessible in less time for the maximum numbers of Israelis.
Netanyahu is the first premier to recognize this and to propose a major overhaul of the country’s transportation infrastructure and mass transit system.
The program’s boldest feature is expanding the railroad network over the coming 10 years. The construction bill would have amounted to NIS51 billion. But the Treasury wouldn’t hear of it. A gargantuan battle ensued, which left in place only about half the initially earmarked outlay – NIS27.5b.
Yet the tug-of-war continued into yesterday’s prolonged and heated cabinet deliberations. The Treasury insisted on lopping off a further NIS7b., whereas Silvan Shalom, the minister in charge of Galilee and Negev development,  wanted to reinstate what was slashed, lest Kiryat Shmona and Eilat be left out.
The Treasury has already stymied enough of the plan to diminish its potential impact. Its rational was that spending enormous sums risks raising the national debt and triggering runaway inflation.
But the Treasury has serially opposed almost all past large-scale development projects, everything from the Ayalon Highway to desalination plants.
The man pushing the reform, Uri Yogev, chairman of the National Economic Council, had already years ago, as head of the Treasury’s budget division, irked his bosses by granting Israel Railways larger-than-ever allocations. As a result, train travel by Israelis went up a whopping 200% in a decade. Thus Yogev actually showed the way.
But there’s colossal room for improvement. Any European backwater offers rail connections whose feeder-lines reach the most remote hamlets. In Israel reaching train stations is in itself a feat. None of Tel Aviv’s three terminals are in the city proper. For Sharon residents, reaching stations in Herzliya and Kfar Saba is often worse than driving to Tel Aviv. Hence train passengers never fully free themselves from traffic jams.
When divided over a decade and considered in terms of Israel’s Gross National Product, the expense isn’t exorbitant. But chiefly, as Netanyahu stressed yesterday, “the reform would be a growth generator, unaffected by international financial fluctuations and would, in itself, add 2% annually to Israel’s GNP.”
Israel Manufacturers Association President Shraga Brosh was eminently justified in arguing that “conservative Treasury functionaries impede an extraordinary vision because of their shortsightedness and lack of imagination.”
As Brosh maintained – alluding to agora-wise but shekel-foolish Treasury parsimoniousness which time and again foiled the construction of adequate desalination facilities – it’s “always possible to establish inquiry commissions to pass judgment on what went wrong. A better approach would be to gear up to challenges ahead of time.”
We fully agree.
The prevalent motto in many commercial firms is that “the bookkeeper must never be allowed to run the company.” This seems no less true for the national enterprise.