Stalled on the tracks

Since the launch of the pilot stage of the incomplete high-speed link between Jerusalem’s Yitzhak Navon Station and Ben-Gurion Airport, there have been 12 disruptions.

An Israel Railways train. (photo credit: ISRAEL RAILWAYS)
An Israel Railways train.
(photo credit: ISRAEL RAILWAYS)
Three months after the launch of the high-speed Jerusalem-Tel Aviv train, it would have been nice to be able to write the following: “Anyone who has traveled on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv fast train can’t help but be impressed. The breathtakingly scenic route via tunnels and bridges through the hills, the sparkling sleekness of the passenger cabins and the speed of the train fulfill all the promises made about the NIS 6.5 billion project that was conceived back in 2001. It’s a triumph of the Zionist spirit that propels Israel into a high-speed future.”
Unfortunately, that scenario has only proven to be accurate for some of the passengers on the line touted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Transportation Minister Israel Katz as the beginning of “a new era.” For others, the reality has been one of delays, cancellations and reports of safety hazards.
As reported Wednesday by the Post’s Eytan Halon, since the launch of the pilot stage of the incomplete high-speed link between Jerusalem’s Yitzhak Navon Station, next to the Central Bus Station, and Ben-Gurion Airport, there have been 12 significant disruptions to the timetable due to technical problems affecting both the track and the trains’ electric engines.
Glitches and initial delays in anything as complex and innovative as a sophisticated railway system are certainly to be expected, but the result of the last three months of uncertainty have raised the prospects of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv train turning into a white elephant.
As is usually the case when a lot of money and egos are involved, blame is starting to be thrown around with a speed that should be reserved for the train tracks. On Monday, Katz intimated that Israel Railways workers may have deliberately contributed to train delays over labor disputes.
It was a claim immediately rejected by the Israel Railways workers committee, which retorted that the workers are giving their all to “cover up decisions and failures,” and by the CEO of Israel Railways, Shahar Ayalon, who told a radio interviewer that the workers are loyal and “are putting in great effort, working on the railways on Fridays and Saturdays, and working in the rain and the sun.”
In addition to the passengers left stranded at the terminals due to delays, Ayalon appears set to become another casualty of the high-speed railway line problems. With a third quarter loss of NIS 273 million, the Israel Railways board of directors announced intentions of bringing Ayalon’s tenure to an end after two years in the post, with a final decision due to be taken in two weeks.
Ayalon, in his interview on Army Radio, suggested the rollout of the high-speed line was launched prematurely, with not all the infrastructure in place and cautioned that the delays and malfunctions were thusly unavoidable. There are other problems as well, including the fact that some of the trains run with too many cars for platforms, meaning that some passengers get off literally on the tracks.
At the same time, Israel Railways sources have downplayed the scale of the issues faced by the new railway line, claiming that malfunctions are affecting just 4% of the scheduled trains, which should be expected during a pilot stage.
But the words we wrote a few weeks after the launch of the line still ring truer than ever. The public does not trust the train. And without trust, public transportation aimed at easing traffic congestion cannot fully succeed.
Commuters would rather be stuck in traffic jams in the comforts of their own car or stick to the reliable bus routes they are familiar with than take the chance on a still-unknown and unreliable NIS 6.5 billion entity.
It was a nice photo op for Netanyahu and Katz to pose for back in September, sharing a train seat and looking out at the grandeur of the Jerusalem hills while traveling at high speed toward the country’s center.
Some day, that idyllic scene will be the reality and commuters will indeed rejoice. But after 17 years of waiting, why push the locomotive out of the station before its time?
By the time the glitches are worked out, the proper number of trains bought and the line actually goes from Jerusalem all the way to Tel Aviv, it may be too late to regain the trust that’s been lost.
To mix metaphors, that ship may have sailed.