Multiple failures delay Jerusalem - Tel Aviv rail link

Amiram Barkat

Safety failings, Spanish siestas and Likud infighting have all been blamed for the railway line not opening on time.

What caused the Police Commissioner to dramatically cancel the opening of the Jerusalem - Tel Aviv fast rail link just a month before the first train was scheduled to leave the station? A "Globes" investigative report on Sunday revealed that the flagship national project was far from completion. None of the main systems on the line have been completed yet, and essential tests of the soundness of the system and the coordination between them have not yet begun. Safety experts and electrical engineers consulted by "Globes" all warned of a disaster if the line was operated on March 30, as announced by Minister of Transport Yisrael Katz.

Following Sunday's report, "Globes" obtained additional information about a series of objections raised by the police and the fire department about the state of the firefighting and safety systems on the line. The police's response to questions from "Globes," however, indicated that matters were proceeding according to plan, and that the situation was under control. "The conditions for safe operation on the line were coordinated in advance with Israel Railways," the police stated. "Israel Police will continue acting in coordination with the other agencies doing the work."

With this background, and following yesterday's dramatic step by Police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh, rumors circulated today that he was acting under orders by Minister of Public Security, Strategic Affairs, and Information Gilad Erdan as part of conflicts between government ministers and the possibility that the conflicts would soon turn into a real war of succession. No evidence for these rumors has been found, at least so far.

There is another explanation that seems far more logical to me. No one in Israel Railways has the courage to tell Katz the simple truth: we will be unable to meet the timetable that was set. At least one senior Israel Railways executive recently promised the minister in public that the railway line would go into action as scheduled at the end of March. The executive forgot to tell Katz, however, that he had already found a new job for himself in another sector, far removed from the transportation industry. Since the railway executives did not have the guts, the police commissioner and fire department, which attended yesterday's meeting, played the role of a rescue unit for Israel Railways' CEO, himself a former Israel Fire and Rescue Services head and police major general.

Meanwhile, the transportation industry is bracing itself for the storm. On whom will the minister vent his rage? Who will pay with his head for Katz's humiliation? These are interesting questions, but the story is much bigger than the personal price to be paid. A slow-motion railway accident was averted here at the very last minute. Journalists are rarely privileged to view such an event and afforded the opportunity to do something to stop it in time.

The high-speed train to Jerusalem project is one of the most expensive and difficult from an engineering standpoint carried out in Israel in recent years. It has many elements unfamiliar to this day to Israel Railways, the infrastructure companies, and the rescue services. For example, how can an electric passenger train stuck inside an 11-kilometer tunnel in the heart of the Judean hills be evacuated? To this should be added Israel Railways' poor performance over the 20 years of the project, as documented in the State Comptroller's reports.

Another element is the Spanish electrical work contractor hired because of its low price bid, which allowed its employees a daily siesta, until Katz had to personally go the Spanish ambassador to Israel and bang on the table. Add to this the State Comptroller's explicit warning in his most recent annual report that recklessness would lead the railway to commit serious safety offenses that would endanger passengers' lives. The writing was on the wall, and we are all lucky that the police read it in time.

Published by Globes [online], Israel Business News - - on February 22, 2018

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2018

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