Train trouble

Having free train passage rights revoked – even for 3 hours a week – is perceived as a slight to IDF soldiers.

Mofaz with soldiers on 1st day of train arrangement 311 (photo credit: FADC spokesman)
Mofaz with soldiers on 1st day of train arrangement 311
(photo credit: FADC spokesman)
A collective state of hysteria has taken hold of our nation. An eminently reasonable – and temporary – solution to the ongoing problem of overcrowding on our railways on Sunday mornings has been transformed beyond recognition into a horrible injustice perpetrated against our poor soldiers.
And the news media have been stoking the populist flames.
On Saturday night, Yediot Aharonot’s editors chose the headline, “Nightmare Sunday,” to describe what they could not know would transpire the next morning.
Radio stations devoted huge swathes of air-time in the morning to disgruntled soldiers and their outspoken and assertive parents. One father lamented that only “soldiers and dogs” were kept off the trains. A mother vowed that she would not condone the travesty of her poor soldier son being jostled by bus across the nation.
Encountering the discourse without knowing the facts, one could easily arrive at the mistaken conclusion that our soldiers were the victims of some unconscionable transportation offense.
In reality, something else altogether happened.
One day a week, between the hours of 6 a.m. and 9 a.m., about 10,000 able-bodied conscripts aged 18 to 21 – many of whom are combat soldiers used to crawling in the mud, sleeping outdoors, running long distances with heavy backpacks, and generally “roughing it” – will not be granted free access to trains.
Instead, a fleet of 300 air-conditioned buses has been placed at their service, free of charge, to transport these soldiers to their bases.
The idea is to alleviate chronic overcrowding during rush hour. On Sunday mornings, occupancy levels regularly reach 200 percent, according to Israel Railways Director-General Boaz Tzafrir.
Not all the lines have been affected – only the most crowded ones that carry residents from the north to Tel Aviv, or from Tel Aviv to certain destinations in the north. And not all soldiers will be affected – reservists will continue to travel on the train free of charge.
Civilian commuters – many of whom are not so able-bodied – will no longer be forced to brave the overcrowding caused by the thousands of soldiers returning to their military bases after the Shabbat. Duffel bags strewn underfoot, M-16s poking into rib-cages and sleeping soldiers sprawled out on the few available seats will all hopefully become less prominent features of commuting by train on Sunday mornings.
While a few hundred soldiers chose to pay full price and take the train anyway, thousands more opted to use the free buses. As a result, occupancy was “only” 140%, and trains ran on time in 84% of the cases, compared to less than half of time on a regular Sunday.
True, many soldiers arrived late to their bases due primarily to road traffic. But IDF commanders were ordered in advance to excuse soldiers’ tardiness.
The solution, in short, was utterly reasonable. But if so, how are we to explain the public outcry, further amplified by the news media? Perhaps part of the answer lies in perceptions.
Soldiers who spoke with The Jerusalem Post’s Ben Hartman expressed a fundamental lack of trust in the IDF. They were skeptical about whether the IDF would truly stand behind its promise not to punish soldiers who arrived late due to the transportation changes.
Also, many of our young citizens who are drafted into the military, and the parents that send them, seem to be fed up. The number of IDF conscripts as a percentage of the total population is gradually shrinking.
Unless present trends change, within a decade or two, less than half of males eligible for military service will actually serve. Already, the idea that military service is the obligation of every 18 year old is no longer a given.
Those who do serve expect appreciation. For some, having their free train passage rights taken away – even for three hours a week – is perceived as a slap in the face.
The solution offered to alleviate overcrowding on our trains was a rational one, while the disproportional reactions seemed less so.
But it would be a mistake to ignore the root causes of the widespread discontent revealed on Sunday.