After commuting nightmare, trains roll back into service

Amid ongoing political crisis, daylong travel discord alleviated by reopening of Tel Aviv-Haifa lines

An Israel Railways train passes the Ayalon Highway, near the Arlozorov Street 'Central' train station in Tel Aviv, August 23, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
An Israel Railways train passes the Ayalon Highway, near the Arlozorov Street 'Central' train station in Tel Aviv, August 23, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israel Railways restored full services Sunday evening, at the end of a day in which trains ground to a halt after political wrangling delayed weekend maintenance work, leaving tens of thousands of commuters stranded.

Planned repair work to rail lines was ordered frozen by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday evening, when ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism complained over the expected violation of the Jewish Sabbath, threatening to topple the coalition if it wasn’t prevented.

Sunday morning saw large traffic jams on highways between Haifa and Tel Aviv, the country’s busiest, as well as along smaller alternative routes, after some 150 train departures on the coastal route were canceled, a police spokesperson said.

The cancellation affected an estimated 150,000 travelers and commuters, including thousands of soldiers returning to their bases after their weekend furloughs.

With the gradual return of trains running on the Tel-Aviv to Haifa route — where a cancelled work project caused the line to be shut down — normal service was resumed.

However, the first train to make the run from Tel Aviv to Haifa hit a wild boar on the line somewhere between Binyamina and Atlit, forcing the driver to make an emergency stop.

Passengers waited 20 minutes as railway staff verified that the train had indeed hit an animal and not a human being. The train eventually continued on its way.

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The CEO of Israel Railways offered his appreciation to staff for finishing the maintenance work that was pushed off from the quieter weekend and into Sunday, one of the busiest days of the week for the trains.

“I thank all of the technical teams and the railway workers who worked from Saturday night to carry out the infrastructure work thoroughly, efficiently and with professionalism,” said Boaz Tsafrir.

In all, Netanyahu canceled repair work on 17 out of 20 sites throughout the rail system. The three sites that continued operating involved repairs deemed necessary for passengers’ safety, and so were acceptable to ultra-Orthodox lawmakers, as Jewish religious law allows violating the Sabbath to save lives.

The surprise cancellation along the Tel Aviv-Haifa route caught Israel Railways crews after they had already disassembled parts of the track. Unable to return the tracks to their place due to the onset of the Sabbath on Friday night, the company was forced to leave the tracks unusable throughout Saturday, and were only able to begin concluding the repairs Saturday night.

The dispute over the cancelled work highlighted a rift between Netanyahu and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, with the prime minister on Saturday accusing Katz of intentionally sparking a coalition crisis with Haredi parties over Sabbath work on the railways, just weeks after the two battled over control of a key Likud party institution.

Netanyahu claimed Katz engineered the crisis by ordering construction work on the rail network over the weekend when it wasn’t necessary to do so.

During the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu warned his ministers not to step out of line and “create” problems. “Ministers are appointed in order to help prevent crises and solve problems, not create them,” he said, with Katz sitting by his side. “I expect the full cooperation of all ministers in this matter.”

The prime minister’s chief of staff, Yoav Horowitz, met later in the day with Katz in an attempt to patch the feud. Following the meeting between Horowitz and Katz, officials apprised of the matter said that there was no longer a chance that Katz would be fired, and that efforts were being made to bring the transportation minister’s public dispute with Netanyahu to an end.

Despite the humiliation endured by Katz at the cabinet meeting, the prime minister may prove to be the party battered harder by the crisis sparked by the Shabbat railway works. A poll published by Channel 2 Sunday evening found that nearly half of the public (49 percent) blames Netanyahu for the spat, as opposed to only 14% who hold Katz responsible. In addition, only 25% backed Netanyahu’s decision to cancel the construction work on Shabbat, while 63% oppose the move.

Finally, only 17% agreed that Netanyahu should fire Katz, compared to 69% who say the transportation minister should retain his position.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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