Waiting for the Train
Every valley shall be raised up and every hill shall be brought low, and the crooked way will be made straight, and the ridges into a valley.
– Isaiah 40:4
In 2006 the Knesset discontinued the office of Commissioner of Future Generations, deciding it was a waste of money. The office, created in 2000, had a commissioner and a small staff, and was tasked with reviewing all proposed legislation for its impact on future generations, as well as with lobbying for new laws that would benefit future generations. I remember attending a lecture by the Commissioner, a retired judge, in which he described the office and gave examples of various successes, failures, and challenges. One of his main concerns was finding ways to reduce the dependence on private cars. He presented dismal statistics on the health impact of the air pollution caused by internal combustion engines, and talked about the effect of paving bigger and better highways over ever increasing areas of Israel's limited land resources. He made a strong plea for the significant upgrading and expansion of public transportation, especially the railroads.
While the commission no longer exists, the challenge of sustainability – and efforts to deal with it – continue. In fact, in the ten or so years since that lecture, while the government has continued to upgrade the highway system, and while private car ownership has continued to burgeon, Israel has seen massive investment in expanding the use of rail transportation. Of course when the train is late, or a line is shut down for track work, everyone complains about "third world service;" however, on the whole, the system is impressive, with comfortable, clean trains, and efficient service that is easily competitive with alternative means of transportation. Since the line to the airport was opened in 2004 I have not driven or been driven there - the train from Acco is by far more convenient. And if we need to get to Haifa or Tel Aviv, we generally go by train.
On my weekly bus trip to Jerusalem, I have been following the progress of the construction of three major east-west rail lines: from Acco to Karmiel, from Haifa to Bet Shean, and from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It seems as if the whole country is a construction site, as mountains are moved, tunnels are dug through other mountains, and soaring bridges are built over valleys. Every day, along our short drive to Karmiel, the view changes, as massive earth-moving equipment rearranges the landscape. And we know, though we can't see it, that the train will pass right through Mt. Gilon, on a spur of which Shorashim sits.
After the recent election, when the new finance minister "discovered" the need to make major budget cuts, it was announced that these rail construction projects were not cost-effective, had been politically motivated, and would therefore be discontinued. Predictably, the announcement was retracted within a week, and the work continues. However, with all our enthusiasm for replacing cars with trains, there are some nagging questions:
Will train service to peripheral areas with relatively sparse and spread-out populations actually spur development of those areas like it did in America? Some have argued that the train and highway improvements that brought Beersheba so much "closer" to Tel Aviv didn't encourage people to move from Tel Aviv to Beersheba, but simply enabled them to keep living in Tel Aviv while working in Beersheba.
And the bigger question: We already take for granted sitting in traffic jams every day, and paying $8 a gallon for fuel. Is it possible to improve public transportation enough that it will actually overcome the addiction to the sense of freedom and empowerment engendered by private car ownership?