Transportation and health ministries clash over train openings next week
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Transportation and health ministries clash over train openings next week

Israel Railways announces reopening of national network but Health Ministry denies giving permission, drawing transportation minister’s ire

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich inaugurates the new high-speed train between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv's Savidor, at Yitzhak Navon train station in Jerusalem on May 11, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich inaugurates the new high-speed train between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv's Savidor, at Yitzhak Navon train station in Jerusalem on May 11, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israel’s Health Ministry on Wednesday evening denied giving the go-ahead for Israel Railways to begin running trains, only hours after the Transportation Ministry announced that limited intercity service would begin on Sunday.

Israel’s rail network shut down in March as part of the government’s efforts to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.

According to a statement on Israel Railways’ website announcing the resumption of train services, riders would have to undergo temperature checks before being allowed to enter stations and would be required to wear a face mask and maintain a distance of two meters from other passengers.

However, responding to the announcement, Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov said on Wednesday evening that the move — which would have eased the commutes of workers returning to their jobs following the lifting of many of coronavirus-related restrictions earlier this month — had not actually received final authorization from his ministry.

Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov at a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

Bar Siman-Tov added that the Health Ministry had only approved the framework for resuming services, not the timing.

In response, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich tweeted Bar Siman-Tov’s letter as well as a copy of a second letter from Bar Siman-Tov’s deputy, Itamar Grotto, which he said had provided authorization to restart train services.

Complaining about health authorities’ “disrespect and lack of seriousness,” he said that he was unsure “which Health Ministry to believe.”

Bar Siman-Tov subsequently apologized to Smotrich and the public for the “misunderstanding” relating to resumption of train services, but added: “Unfortunately, we are still not at the stage where we can allow gatherings in such great numbers and crowding.”

It was not immediately clear whether train service will in fact resume on Sunday.

According to the initial statement from Israel Railways, once they resume, trains will operate Sunday through Thursday from 5 a.m. to midnight.

A woman wears a face mask for fear of the coronavirus as she takes the train to Haifa, on March 17, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

However, not all lines would initially be operational. Lines not operating would include Beit Shemesh-Jerusalem and Beersheba North-Dimona. Several other lines would be closed at night. (Full list in Hebrew.)

A number of stations would also initially be closed, including but not limited to Jerusalem Zoo, Jerusalem Malha, Bnei Brak, Kfar Saba Nordau, Netanya Sapir, Dimona, Raanana West and Herzliya.

“With the return of rail traffic, we will continue to accelerate the project of converting the rail network to electricity, a project that will enable us to improve the service and operate electric, quiet and environmentally friendly trains,” Israel Railways said in its statement, referring to work electrifying the tracks undertaken during the shutdown.

Smotrich came under fire earlier this week when there were long lines and overcrowded conditions at bus stations as soldiers returned to their bases after the weekend, using public transportation routes still running at a limited capacity due to the pandemic.

On Sunday, Smotrich inaugurated an extension of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv high-speed train, which was fast-tracked during the rail system closure.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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