The right track

Massive outlays of taxpayer cash have been lavished on Israel Railways. It’s time the company employees understand that this isn’t their money but ours.

Jerusalem train station 390 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jerusalem train station 390
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz last week announced a radical overhaul of Israel Railways that would split the company into three subsidiaries: business, transport and maintenance. If this stirs up strikes, he warned, the entire railways complex will be shut down and reinvented as a new entity.
It’s about time. Time is only one of the indicators of Israel Railways’ many failures.
Anyone unfortunate enough to depend on Israel Railways for his/her daily commute to work is all too familiar with the following announcement blared from station loudspeakers: “The next train is delayed by xxx minutes. This is an approximate estimate.”
An unreliable service isn’t force majeure. It’s not born of catastrophic or unavoidable circumstances. Indeed, both the state-owned company and the Transportation Ministry are investing heavily in equipment and infrastructure to bring our railroads and trains into the 21st century.
The government is cognizant of the fact that, even in this hi-tech era, trains are indispensable for population dispersal and for significantly lowering housing costs by linking the less-expensive periphery to the uber-expensive economic and cultural hubs.
So what has gone wrong? Why is a country with as many enviable achievements as ours unable to connect its outlying regions to the center? The answer can be summed up in a single word: union.
Routinely, management’s best laid plans are sabotaged by the railway employees’ singularly pugnacious – even by Israeli standards – union. This has nothing to do with securing jobs or seeking equitable pay. This is all about a brutal struggle for clout. It’s about who will run the system.
In return for acquiescing to projected reforms, the employees were offered a 25 percent pay hike – an unbelievable dream for most Israeli wage-earners – along with a NIS 40,000 grant each, accompanied by written guarantees that they will not be sacked. This lucrative package was flatly rejected. The inescapable conclusion, therefore, is that this conflict isn’t about income or the security of income.
Pro forma, the latest flare-up in the union-management war revolves around management’s decision that foreign companies that manufacture new rail cars will also be charged with their maintenance (which would be undertaken here by Israeli workers). This would mean that a significant slice of the operation would be wrested from union control. Israel Railways’s workshops are considered responsible for frequent malfunctions, accidents and even more near-accidents, all accruing from shoddy workmanship.
But that’s only one example. The union’s kneejerk inclination is to reject any modification of the status quo. Thus it refused installation of GPS-like devices in locomotives to warn of any obstructions or hitches along the route.
Worse yet, it hotly opposes plans to phase out outmoded diesel engines. These are to be replaced by electric counterparts, which are kinder to the environment as well as more efficient. The advantages to commuter and cargo transport could appreciably lower the number of cars and trucks clogging our highways, and thereby provide a boon both to our economy and our ecology.
But change is counter to preserving things as they are, which is the union’s indisputable objective. The current state of affairs is the source of great power for a nepotistic ring that impedes progress to the detriment of us all.
The union has created a monopoly that it’s now defending to the hilt – come what may – to protect the sinecures and vested interests of that small group which controls the works committee and hands out positions to cronies and relatives. Any reorganization – indeed any modernization or upgrade – fundamentally limits the works committee’s opportunities to deal out jobs to family and friends.
Nepotism doesn’t only curtail fair competition via preferential treatment to favored individuals; it also means that positions are granted to candidates without qualifications but with connections. The slapdash upkeep and the lack of professionalism at Israel Railways are only some of the consequences of such inherently unfair and unsafe practices.
Massive outlays of taxpayer cash have been lavished on Israel Railways. It’s time the company employees understand that this isn’t their money but ours.