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Traffic jammed as halted train lines snarl morning commute

Gridlock reported between Tel Aviv and Haifa as some 150,000 passengers expected to be affected by closure of Tel Aviv-Haifa train line after political standoff over Sabbath repair work

Travelers at central Tel Aviv's central Savidor station checking a schedule, where no trains northbound are listed, on September 3, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Travelers at central Tel Aviv's central Savidor station checking a schedule, where no trains northbound are listed, on September 3, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Israelis began their workweek Sunday morning with clogged highways and hundreds of canceled trains as the row between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz over allowing repairs to rail lines on the Sabbath grew angrier.

Some 150 train departures on the Haifa-Tel Aviv route, the country’s busiest, were canceled for Sunday, affecting an estimated 150,000 travelers and commuters, including thousands of soldiers returning to their bases after weekends home.

By 7 a.m., large traffic jams were being reported on highways between Haifa and Tel Aviv, as well as smaller alternative routes, as commuters attempted to make their way by car and bus instead of train.

The trains would resume operating on the line only at 7 p.m. Sunday, Israel Railways said, after planned repair work to the rail line was ordered frozen by Netanyahu on Friday evening when Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism complained over the violation of the Jewish Sabbath, threatening to topple the coalition if it was not prevented.

A snapshot of heavy traffic north of Tel Aviv at 7:20 a.m. on September 4, 2016. (screen capture: Google Maps)
A snapshot of heavy traffic north of Tel Aviv at 7:20 a.m. on September 4, 2016. (screen capture: Google Maps)

In all, Netanyahu canceled Saturday 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 Haredi 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 will only conclude the repairs on Sunday.

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks with Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz during a Knesset plenary session, February 8, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks with Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz during a Knesset plenary session, February 8, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Other lines were also affected by the work stoppages. The train from Tel Aviv to Ben Gurion Airport was closed from Saturday night through Sunday morning for repairs originally planned for Saturday. It reopened on Sunday morning.

There will be no Tel Aviv-Binyamina line on Sunday. Southbound trains entering Tel Aviv from the north will stop at central Tel Aviv’s “Mercaz” station, instead of continuing, as they normally do, to the city’s two southern stations.

Netanyahu on Saturday accused Katz, his transportation minister, of intentionally sparking a coalition crisis with Haredi parties over Sabbath work on the railways, just weeks after the two fought over control of a key Likud party institution.

Netanyahu claimed Katz created the crisis by ordering construction work on the rail network over the weekend when it wasn’t necessary to do so, ostensibly in order to avoid train delays.

“This crisis was started by Katz unnecessarily to undermine the relationship between the prime minister and the ultra-Orthodox public, as well as damage his reputation within the general public,” Netanyahu’s office said a statement.

The prime minister was “shocked at the cynical attack,” his office said.

“From the very beginning, there was no need to call for work to be done on the Sabbath. It was possible for the work to be done at other times, and not hurt the ultra-Orthodox public, or the soldiers,” Netanyahu’s office said, adding that Katz was “holding both passengers and soldiers hostage.”

Rumors that Netanyahu was planning to fire Katz surfaced Friday, and then again on Saturday night in a Channel 2 report.

Netanyahu and Katz, both Likud heavyweights, publicly fought last month amid speculation over a possible leadership contest in the ruling party in the next election cycle. Netanyahu summoned Katz to a meeting a day after the latter pushed through the Likud’s secretariat a series of decisions that weakened the position of the party chairmanship, held by Netanyahu.

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)

Netanyahu then summoned Katz to his office, and the two agreed to delay implementation of most of the measures until representatives of the two men hammered out a compromise.

The Likud secretariat, of which Katz is chairman, is the internal organ responsible for party operations, including staff, budget, regional offices and election campaign efforts.

On Saturday night, the prime minister’s chief of staff, Yoav Horowitz, accused Katz of trying to carry out a “putsch” against Netanyahu, Israel Radio reported. Horowitz said that the political “maneuver” caused deliberate harm to soldiers and other train passengers.

According to Horowitz, Katz promised the religious parties that there would not be any non-essential work on the Sabbath, then apparently reneged on the promise and advanced 20 projects that he claimed had to be carried out over the weekend.

The chief of staff said Netanyahu had done everything in his power to avoid disruptions to passengers, and had ordered alternative transportation for soldiers on Saturday night and Sunday morning. Netanyahu’s office said the prime minister also instructed the Transportation Ministry to increase the number of bus lines in Tel Aviv and Haifa to alleviate delays caused by the suspended rail service.

Also Saturday, the head of the left-wing Meretz party, MK Zehava Galon, petitioned the High Court of Justice to overturn Netanyahu’s decision to halt the weekend railway work.

“The court must put an end to the prime minster’s unbridled frenzy on the backs of thousands of passengers,” Galon said.

Meanwhile, opposition lawmakers announced Saturday they had collected the 25 MK signatures required to force a special recess committee session to discuss Netanyahu’s decision.

Several hundred took part in demonstrations against Netanyahu’s decision in central Tel Aviv and at Haifa train stations on Saturday night.

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