Passengers largely stay away as intercity trains resume services
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Passengers largely stay away as intercity trains resume services

Transportation minister says she is confident public will return, as first day sees just 30% of expected numbers riding the rails

Passengers wearing face masks at the Yitzhak Navon train station in Jerusalem on June 22, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussii/Flash90)
Passengers wearing face masks at the Yitzhak Navon train station in Jerusalem on June 22, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussii/Flash90)

Intercity rail services restarted Monday morning after a three-month freeze to stem the coronavirus, but passengers mostly stayed away with barely one-third of the expected numbers turning up to ride the rails.

Only around 150 passengers boarded each train although up to 500 were permitted, Hebrew media reported.

Under strict travel regulations, face masks must be worn at all times on the train and in the stations, even when speaking on a phone, and eating and drinking is forbidden during rides.

Stewards patrolled the trains to ensure passengers kept to the guidelines.

Media reports showed empty stations and carriages with just a handful of passenger seated well apart from each other.

Transportation Minister Miri Regev arrives at the Yitzhak Navon train station in Jerusalem, on June 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Transportation Minister Miri Regev, who rode the restarted fast train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, told the Kan public broadcaster in an interview during the journey that she was optimistic the passenger figures will go up.

“First of all, it is the first day,” said Regev, lowering her mask from her nose and mouth to speak with media. “That is the reality, and that is fine. I am confident that the passengers will return to the trains.”

Regev said that just 40,000 travelers had booked tickets for the rail service throughout the day, about a third of the expected number.

Just 30,000 people had booked to travel on Tuesday, Channel 13 news reported.

At full capacity, the trains usually carry some 250,000 passengers a day.

Railway officials assessed that many passengers were wary of using the trains on their first day back to service and that the figure would increase in the coming days.

Screen capture from video of an Israel Railways worker reminding a passenger that he must wear a face mask during his journey, June 22, 2020. (YouTube)

Israel Railways CEO Michael Maixner cautioned earlier in the day that if trains are more crowded than allowed, “we will have to reverse.”

On the other hand, Maixner said that if the reopening goes according to the plan, trains could be filled in the future with 75 percent of the regular number of passengers.

Trains were one of the last major services to remain shut as the country increasingly opened up over recent weeks from a lockdown begun in mid-March to curb the spread of the coronavirus. While buses began running with part, then full, service weeks ago, trains were kept shut, leading to anger and frustration among commuters who rely on the service.

Under social distancing guidelines, passenger trains are being limited to a maximum of 500 riders each — half of the normal capacity — in order to prevent crowding. Travelers must book their places in advance by ordering new mandatory ride vouchers on the Israel Railways website.

The vouchers are not a replacement for tickets and travelers must still buy a stub or swipe their Rav Kav travel cards at the turnstiles. Passengers must also carry a valid ID that matches the one appearing on the voucher.

A detailed explanation on the new voucher system is available in English here. Vouchers are available online starting 48 hours before the planned trip, and will also be available at train station kiosks in cases where seats remain.

A cleaning worker is seen disinfecting the main hall at Yitzhak Navon train station in Jerusalem on June 22, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussii/Flash90)

Passengers whose body temperature is over 38 degrees Celsius will not be allowed into the stations, and workers will enforce social distancing in the waiting lines.

The date for resuming train service was postponed several times over the last month, as infection numbers began to rise again following a brief hiatus.

Health Ministry figures on Monday showed 274 coronavirus cases diagnosed over the previous 24 hours, continuing the trend of the past week, which has seen 200-300 cases a day on most days.

The latest cases brought the national total to 21,008, of which 4,940 were active cases — 45 of those in serious condition, 29 of whom were on ventilators. Meanwhile 54 people were in moderate condition, while the rest were mild cases. The death toll stood at 307.

Israel has seen the number of new COVID-19 cases continue to climb by nearly 300 a day, leading the Health Ministry on Sunday to instruct hospitals around the country to prepare to reopen their coronavirus wards.

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