Israel Railways rides again but few passengers return

Dror Feuer has a railway carriage to himself  / Photo: Eyal Izhar, Globes

Dror Feuer travels from south to north but finds that for much of the enchanting journey, he was alone in the carriage.

Last Monday Israel Railways resumed operations after an 89-day hiatus. The response of the public was hesitant with less than 60,000 passengers riding the trains on the first day back compared with 250,000 on an average day before the Covid-19 crisis. The low number was the result of a number of factors: a rise in new infections, high unemployment, low morale, the coupon system for booking travel ahead of time, the many restrictions, the prohibition against soldiers using the trains and more. Many others feared crowding and technical problems and preferred to continue getting stuck in traffic jams.

In contrast I reported for duty at Tel Aviv Savidor Central Station at 7.30am all set for a journey around Israel Railways network. I waited for you and it's a shame you didn't turn up. Twelve hours, 32 stations and 550 kilometers later, I arrived back at Tel Aviv Savidor Central Station. This is what happened.

7.30am Tel Aviv Savidor Central Station. Outside at the bus terminal there are long lines but the railway station is almost completely empty. There are a lot of attendants, security staff, coronavirus stewards, manned - coupon printing stands, journalists, photographers, and everyone except for passengers. It reminded me of those tourist restaurants where the waiting staff stand outside with the menu trying to attract passersby.

I'd come early because I was scared they'd be long lines but here I was almost alone in the station. At one of the cafes I bought juice and a croissant and stare at an automatic hand disinfectant dispenser. On a regular day streams of people would have been flowing in and out of the station past this awkward looking new feature. How I miss those old crowds and being part of them.

The 8.07 to Beersheva (NIS 27 fare) leaves platform six exactly on time. There were about ten of us who got on the train. I'm the only one in my carriage. I walk up and down to the other carriages and the situation is similar. The train is almost completely empty. The few other passengers and I are sitting in our own private carriages smiling to ourselves. This is a strange journey that feels like some sort of pilot project. There are no passengers, the platforms are empty and almost nobody is boarding the train. Not at Hashalom Station, not at Haganah or Holon, Bat Yam or Moshe Dayan, Rishon Lezion. As we go south the situation doesn't change. The roads are jammed but the train is empty. Yavne West, Ashdod Ad Halom - the stations are deserted yet the roads are congested. It's a strange feeling.

But there are a lot, and I mean a lot of coronavirus stewards. It's a peculiar name isn't it? What do they serve you coronavirus? They walk up and down the empty train making sure that everyone is wearing their masks. About 700 of these people have been hired to make life easier for passengers on these first days back.

By 8.40am in a good mood as the train speeds up, like a baby soothed by the rattle of the carriages like an unseen hand rocking the crib, I am staring quietly out the window. There is nobody to chat to, nobody to interview but Israel is spread out before me outside of the windows, flashing by before my eyes, the green becomes gold the further south we travel. I look at the cars on the highway and see them looking back at me on the train and I realize how we have missed the trains streaking across the landscape, not as a form of transport but as part of the familiar daily view. The train on its tracks and the planes in the sky are all an integral part of the world, which we expect to see, just as much as mountains and cities, fields and factories. The country is more itself when the trains are running.

8.54am. Four passengers board the train at Ashdod Ad Halom and we continue on to Ashkelon and from there to Shderot, Netivot, Ofakim and so on. The ploughed fields, the sand dunes, everything is quiet, especially when the tracks diverge from the highway and we speed between the empty fields. The country is beautiful. I haven't seen it this way for three months and it moves me.

Only six passengers alight at Beersheva Central at 10.13am. The cleaners sit on the platform bench in the shade. We're not worried they tell me, smiling, it won't be long before people come back. "Perhaps they don't know how to book a ticket," one of the cleaners tries to explain. "Many people find technology challenging," says one of the attendants, "We expected more people," admits Avraham Attias, the station manager. "Buit I understand why people might not have come."

After something like 20 minutes, we set out on our journey from Israel's southernmost station in Beersheva to the northernmost in Nahariya. The fare costs NIS 66. I can already hear Dimona's residents protesting that they are further south. It's true they are but there are only three trains a day to there and if we tried going there we'd struggle to get back out again.

I count that there are 13 passengers boarding the train in Beersheva. "I've been missing the trains," a young man tells me. "What a pleasure. The traffic jams were killing me," says a lady in a red hat. Everyone is satisfied. Some of them start speaking on their mobiles and like me, but without the journalistic excuse, start providing real time reports about their journey and rating the service, the views and the traffic jams. "It's cleaner here than at home," one young woman tells her partner over the phone. The only problem observes another man is that "the journey has lost its spontaneity." He is referring to the fact that the pre-booked coupons require specifying the time of the train. If you miss the train you have lost your coupon. If you want to catch an earlier train - you can't.

The temperature in the train, as always, gets colder and colder as the journey progresses. At first it was pleasant, then it got a bit cooler and by the end of the day my knees were barely functioning. If the train was to point its air-conditioning systems outwards, it would prevent global warming.

Outside, the roads are horrible. We travel northwards on a different route via Lahavim-Rahat, Kiryat Gat, Kiryat Malakhi-Yoav, Mazkeret Batya, Ramla and Lod. We travel through poor neighborhoods. But again the fields are ploughed and wide-open. After the green became gold going south, it again becomes green as we travel north as a pleasant sense of tranquility overcomes all the passengers.

The closer the train gets to Tel Aviv, the fuller it starts to get, relatively speaking. The carriages are still mainly empty but it is possible to start enjoying a bit of company and hear laughing children, the prattle of young people, the stories of soldiers (those disobeying orders), people catching up on news, and the chatter of the elderly in a mixture of languages: Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, and occasionally Amharic, Tigre, Yiddish, Filipino, and English.

I am thankful for all those types that aren't using the train today - those that put their feet up on the seats or talk too loudly, or eat their tuna sandwiches in my face. This new restriction prohibiting eating on the trains is great. Most train journeys are pretty short anyway.

At 12.26pm we are back at Tel Aviv Savidor and by 12.28pm we are already pulling out from platform two on the train to Nahariya. More and more people are getting on the train but in numbers that can be counted individually rather than in dozens. We speed northwards through Herzliya, Netanya, Hadera, Caesarea, Binyamina, and Atlit. Some of the stations are closed and those that are open are basically empty. Some of them are being redecorated and some of them arte new anyway.

Around Hadera we have the day's biggest drama. A woman gets stuck in the bathroom for more than ten minutes.

I love traveling north and I start singing the famous hit song on the subject by Grateful Dead "I wish I was a headlight on a northbound train." I wish I was too and not just for one day.

At Haifa Hof Hacarmel station I meet my friend Shay Romy. Every time I meet him he has risen further up the ranks of Israel Railways from a train driver, to being responsible for all the drivers, to in charge of enforcement, to deputy head of the operations division. I'm happy for him even though I'm not being promoted anywhere. Romy takes me out of the carriage and into engine cabin, where we remain through to Nahariya. Moshe Abu, who has been a train driver for 17 years whisks us through to Nahariya. This is one of the most beautiful parts of the train ride northwards. The train speeds through the countryside, next to the sea, between factories and the port. A joy.

I ask Abu? Is driving a train like riding a bike? The truth is, Abu answers, I really missed it. It's dispiriting to see the empty platforms, he adds. He is also confident that people will come back. At Haifa Central Abu finishes his shift and Eli Ohana (not the soccer star) comes into the driver's cabin. He has been a train driver for 11 years and worked for Israel Railways for 21 years. In 1999, he joined as a guard. Since last week he has become my favorite Eli Ohana.

"People are scared to travel on the trains," says Ohana who is full of energy at the start of his shift and happy to have some company for a change. "But they crowd into the bars. Crazy no? There only careful about the train."

In the driver's cabin itself, it's irrelevant whether the train is empty or full. He compares himself to an aircraft pilot but says his job is better. When I talk about the beautiful view of Haifa, he comments. "And what does a plot see? Clouds!!!"

When we talk about the monotony of the job he again compares himself to a pilot and observes that there are two of them in the cockpit, while he is alone. He says he carries double the number of passengers and makes twice as many journeys. "Have you any idea what it feels like to be by yourself at night in the dark?" When I point out that he travels within the tracks, he asks, "And what does a pilot do? Puts data into the automatic pilot and goes to sleep" When we talk about the dangers, Ohana quotes statistics (correctly) that the chances of a train accident are much higher than a plane crash.

Concluding the discussion that he himself began, he sums up, "The pilot is responsible for less people, everything he does is automatic, he has assistance and everything is safer. Only because he works in the skies does he have a halo." Ohana studies education in the evenings - not because he wants to be a teacher but because it's interesting. All the stations we pass through are virtually empty.

We reach Nahariya station, the country's northernmost station, which is right in the center of the city, so unlike stations like Ashdod Ad Halom and petah Tikva which are on the outskirts of their cities. We stroll down Hagaaton Boulevard, the city's main thoroughfare, to feel the ground beneath our feet and get a glimpse of the sea before returning to the station.

After Nahariya, the next destination is Karmiel, another 'end of the line' stop. For this we have to backtrack southbound to Kiryat Motzkin, a small and charming station in Haifa Bay (which is actually in Kiryat Shmuel within Haifa's city limits) but let's not be picky. We change trains and travel northeast towards Karmiel.

This train reveals to passengers a new world of huge car parks full of demolished old cars and then brand new cars, which have arrived as if to take the place of the old ones. We weave our way through abandoned, crumbling factories. This is actually the fullest train we have been on so far. The best part of the entire day, to my mind, is Ahihud station, amidst mountain villages in a setting that you don't expect to find in Israel. Behind the station is a horse ranch and shepherds tend their flocks. The car park is disproportionately large. I've never been to Provence and now I have no need.

From Karmiel, we start heading back south. The ticket to Tel Aviv costs NIS 39.50. The train fills up and everything runs like clockwork. At the entrance to every station, at a strategic security point cameras measure our temperatures and capture our image. All the technical innovations such as coupon vending machines, reading it, measuring our temperature, train punctuality - everything operates smoothly throughout the country and every day. According to the Israel Railways website, the trains have a 95% punctuality record.

I admit that I was a bit bothered by the amount of information you need to furnish Israel Railways with in order to receive your coupon before traveling - Starting point, destination, ID number, phone number and email. Israel Railways insists that all the information is erased within 24 hours. The images captured of passengers are also erased. They explain that they have no intention or even capability of setting up any sort of data bank. The law prohibits it.

The information we provide Israel Railways is not even for epidemiological tracking but rather just to inform them how many passengers can be expected to ride on any particular train. So why do they need our ID number? To prevent taking advantage of the system so that somebody doesn't book rides on 10 different trains on a particular morning in order to keep their options open. Perhaps Israel Railways is hinting that a black market could develop with dubious characters standing outside the station offering cupons for the train to Beit Shean.

For my part, 12 hours wearing a mask does something to a person, although I'm not sure yet exactly what. Back home I feel as tired as if I'd pushed the trains myself for the entire day. By the way almost all the passengers I saw were also wearing masks.

Approaching Tel Aviv again. The windows of the train reveal an Israel full of glory and full of misery, a beautiful country which at the same time is so small but so great. From south to north and back again out of the train's big windows you can look at Israel as if it is a back yard. Israel is small enough to be changing the entire time and beautiful enough to capture your attention. Sometimes, and it is not such a rare thing, a small piece of sudden magic takes places; the waves in the sea sparkle to the west and a gleam is reflected in the car window on the bridge opposite.

In three hours and more from south to north you pass through the Negev desert from fields to plantations. You see everything - people in engaged in air sports and sea sports, students and workers, sheep and shepherds, predatory birds and factories. High-tech towers in the center of the country, and a garbage heap of dumped cars, large houses and the slums of Lod, the ports of Ashdod and Haifa, heavy industry and what don't you see - universities and agriculture, luxury housing and disadvantage neighborhoods, new neighborhoods rapidly being built, tunnels and bridges. In just over three hours you can travel from the Negev to the Galilee, from the desert to the sea, from the coastal plain to the mountains. From the acacia in the south to the eucalyptus in the Sharon and the oaks of the north with olive trees everywhere. It feels good on the train. The country spreads out before you and I simply can't help but fall in love with it anew.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on June 28, 2020

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020

Dror Feuer has a railway carriage to himself  / Photo: Eyal Izhar, Globes
Dror Feuer has a railway carriage to himself / Photo: Eyal Izhar, Globes
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