When will the train finally leave the station?

By Robert Sarner, Canadian Jewish News, June 22, 2000

JERUSALEM - This month, the National Planning Council approved the construction of a new, much-needed high-speed railway line connecting Jerusalem and Tel Aviv via Ben-Gurion Airport. For several good reasons, such long overdue news should have made major headlines and been the cause of celebration. For several equally good reasons, that was not the case.

For all of Israel's cutting-edge prowess in the high-tech sector, it's still mired in the mid-20h century when it comes to public transportation. The most flagrant example is the rail system that, among other things, offers no train service between the country's two largest, most important cities.

In such a highly opinionated, deeply divided nation as Israel, few issues command a broad consensus. This is one of them. Indeed, virtually nobody contests the need for an alternative to cars and buses which generate horrific pollution, time-wasting traffic jams and thousands of accidents every year.

For decades, politicians have often paid lip service to the desirability of an efficient rail line linking the capital with the country's business and cultural hub. Who could argue? But, like with the much-talked about and often promised Tel Aviv subway, nothing was done. Now, the tide may be turning. Perhaps.

The recent announcement of a new Jerusalem-Tel Aviv train line raises hopes. But with no date indicated for the beginning of work nor details given on the budget, people are understandably skeptical.

They've heard it all before. Invariably, bureaucratic wrangling rules the day as such projects are hijacked by political considerations that divert budgets for more expedient expenditures - like more roadways. The result: As the country is being paved over, the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv train never leaves the station.

Two years ago, the already neglected train service between the two cities - pitifully slow and infrequent - was closed down completely following numerous derailments. By then, its use was relegated to mostly diehard rail enthusiasts willing to accept the appalling conditions and the two-hour journey, more than twice the time by car or bus.

In contrast, tens of thousands of motorists negotiate Highway Number One every day between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, making the 55-kilometer stretch of asphalt the most widely traveled - and congested - highway in the country.

Ironically, while the train link between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv deteriorated terribly in recent years, the situation improved elsewhere in the country. Israel may still lack rail service in some regions but the system is expanding and overall the number of people traveling by train is growing.

At a press conference this month inaugurating train service between Tel Aviv and Rosh Ha'ayin, the head of Israel Railways, Amos Uzani, said that he recently presented a five year $1.8 billion plan for railway development to the Transportation Ministry. According to Uzani, Israel Railways expects to carry 15 million passengers in 2001. The next move is now up to the government.

As a tiny, densely populated country devoid of mountain ranges and massive distances to cover, Israel is ideally suited for a high-speed train system. With the nation's roads increasingly choking with cars and trucks, the benefits of an efficient rail network servicing all of Israel would seem self-evident: less pollution, fewer highway casualties, an alleviation of traffic jams and better population dispersal. The dividends may be hard to dispute but sadly no one has been able to make it happen.

Decades of foot dragging have kept a vastly improved rail system on the back-burner, opposed by the country's powerful bus cooperatives and sidetracked by bureaucrats vying for control of the potential budgets. For most politicians, keeping new roads the priority seems the most direct route to voters' hearts. And keeping people in their cars assures the government of a steady flow of big money through hefty taxes on vehicles and gas.

But the price in human lives and environmental destruction for making Israel a more car-dependent society is staggering and increasingly apparent. If the solution is not revolutionary, the will to translate it into reality is. It's just a question of how bad the situation has to become first before the government will have no choice but to get on track.

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