The Little Engine That Couldn’t

Some people have this knack of finding ways to profit from other people’s woes and sorrows. Here’s a case in point (taken from an article in The New York Times). There were two consortiums eagerly bidding to acquire the 5,500 artifacts that have been recovered from the wreckage of the Titanic. One of the consortiums included a number of British museums, the National Geographic Society, and the film-maker James Cameron. You might have thought that with that fire-power they would be sure to win, but no, they were only able to come up with $19.2 million. The other consortium, three hedge funds that none of us have ever heard of, was able to raise $19.5 million. So they will be the proud owners of, among other trophies, “a bowler hat, the crusty leather folds of a once-sumptuous Gladstone bag and the dark, sleek curves of a bronze angel that graced the post of a staircase.” Plus a collection of marbles, the playthings of children who didn’t quite make it out alive. 

Because my brain works more like A.B. Normal’s than the average Joe’s, I can’t help imagining back to the winter of 1912, when everyone was talking about the maiden voyage of what was to be the largest passenger vessel EVER, the most opulent EVER, a ship that was UNSINKABLE. That’s all you would hear about, all you would read about (except for an occasional article about unrest in some tiny principalities in the Balkans). Because anybody who was somebody wanted to be aboard when the ship set sail in a few months from Southampton, there were all these ‘experts,’ the ones who announced that they had done their ‘research’ and could tell you the best way to book your passage, the best cabins still available, special features of the ship to look for, and so on.

But you had a friend, a person who had been involved in the construction of the ship. And your friend sat you down and explained: “All this blah-blah-blah about the ship being unsinkable. Balderdash. No ship is unsinkable. If something hits her with enough force in the right place, she’s going down to Davey Jones locker. And if there is some kind of disaster, and if you’re in second or third class, there’s no way you would be able to get to a lifeboat in time. And anyway, there are nowhere near enough lifeboats – assuming there enough gullible souls willing to get on board, as there probably will be. I’m telling you this as a friend, don’t get on that ship. Most of the people I’ve spoken to don’t want to hear about it.” So you run around, talking to a few of your friends who had been planning to book passage. Unfortunately, you are no more successful than your original source.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Today, we have more efficient, if less opulent ways of getting around, but, well, you’ll see where this is going…..

It was early in 2018, and we were told that the train from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv – the one that was supposed to be operational in 2017, the one that was originally scheduled to be ready ten years ago – would be open for business by Pesach. And people were excited. It would not be the game-changer that the Light Rail in Tel Aviv will be (whenever that is completed in 202?), but it would be nice. It would sure be easier for us to get to the museums or other places of interest in Tel Aviv, much more pleasant than taking the bus.

But we have a friend, one with a lifetime of experience in the railroad business, one who was instrumental in the electrification of the Acela Amtrak line, one who has worked on a number of rail projects here in The Land. “It’s not going to happen.”

Actually, we didn’t need any expert advice on this one; it was pretty obvious. Just look out the window of the bus going on route 1, and you can see the tracks aren’t finished yet. Still Yisrael Katz, the Minister of Transportation, kept insisting, until he was told quite firmly that the train was not going to run because it wasn’t safe. At which point, Yisrael Katz, because he is Yisrael Katz, declared that the postponement was his idea all along. However, he insisted that the rail line would be in operation by Sukkot. Not going to happen said our friend, who had spent years doing battle with people who had no business making decisions about the various rail projects in The Land but were authorized to make them anyway. There were too many unresolved issues and not enough time to make things right. Even a week before the scheduled opening a published report stated that the operation had failed all its safety tests. No way it was going to happen.

But, sure enough, it did. During Chol Hamoed Sukkot, the train between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv began to operate. Well, at least it went half-way there, as far as Ben-Gurion airport; the electrification of the other half wasn’t completed. And it was a resounding success: after all, Katz and Netanyahu got their picture taken at the new station in Jerusalem, and they were in all the newspapers. Wasn’t that the point?

The week before the announced launch, there was a lot of excitement about the train on Facebook. “I can hardly wait; it’s going to be great!” To which, I kept responding that the train was not ready for prime time and the inauguration of the line would be put off once again. (All the while, I assumed that some responsible adult would pull the plug on this debacle-to-be; but no one did.) And what I got back as feedback on Facebook was, “Oh, but I heard; oh, but I read; oh, but I saw……” And the various social media were filled with the usual ‘experts,’ giving the results of their ‘research’ as to how to order tickets. (You can’t just show up at the station and get a ticket; you have to order your ticket on-line a day in advance. That makes it easy!) NOOOOOOOO!

How long would it take before something would go wrong, hopefully without anyone being seriously injured, or G-d forbid, worse? It took all of two days before a train got stuck in the tunnel, and then another week or so before all Hell began to break loose – meaning that the SNAFUs began to be reported in the press.

One problem that was hard to ignore: the folks in-charge had only ten years to purchase enough additional cars to put into service on the new line, meaning that delivery would still be a year away. What to do? Take cars from the existing line going from Nahariya (all the way up north) to Be’er Sheva. Nobody will notice that passengers – the rush hour crowd heading to work in the Tel Aviv area – would now be standing, jammed in like sardines, for a ride that might take over an hour — assuming the train arrived at all. That was the first newspaper article I found, and I dutifully posted that on the Facebook group, Secret Jerusalem.

When you post something on Facebook, you never know what kind of response you will get. One guy responded something to the effect: it’s all good. What does he mean, it’s all good? The best thing to do when someone who is a Total Idiot writes something on Facebook is to ignore it. Admittedly, that’s hard at times. So I bit the bait: ‘Dear Mr. Allgood, if you were riding on one of the trains, and the only place you could find to stand was perched precariously inside one of the lavatories, you might be somewhat less sanguine about the experience.’ To which Mr. Allgood responded, “complain, complain, complaining.” When will I learn, or at least follow my own advice? You know the old saying: Once a Total Idiot, always a Total Idiot.

Within a day, more articles began to appear. The sleeping members of the Fourth Estate had woken and were beginning to ask questions, probably interviewing our friend, who is often quoted anonymously as an expert witness. And these reporters began to understand that running an electrified rail system with temporary and often unreliable power sub-stations is not the way to go.

That was the substance of the second article I posted. While a lot of people were beginning to get the message, there were still a hard-core group of harumphers – defined as self-styled authorities who know what to say. “They’re just getting the kinks out; nothing to worry about. It’s just the press showing off,” or words to that effect. A third article appeared with more information, and I posted that as well.

My personal favorite is the fourth one, an ‘analysis’ by Meirav Moran, which appeared in Haaretz under the headline, This train should be derailed until it’s ready:

‘At the entrances and exits from tunnels there are mechanisms that keep trains from colliding, and these, too, are still in the trial period. Apparently some of the underground tunnels are still susceptible to moisture issues – as was revealed last week, when a pipe burst and halted the line. There are electric train engines that Israel Railways employees are driving only now for the first time, and any issues with them require flying in special teams from abroad; the signaling system needs to be integrated into the nationwide system. And that’s just the short list.’

I didn’t bother posting this article. Three is enough to make the point. If folks are not paying attention or are ignoring the advice, telling them a fourth time won’t make any difference. Sure enough, someone I sort of know posted on Facebook how wonderful her trip on the train was. Gevalt. However, it seems that lots of Jerushalemites have figured it out; the trains, I’m told, are running nearly empty.

All right. Everyone who has read this article gets the message. Still, one might ask, aren’t you overdoing it just a tad – comparing the unpleasantness of the rail journey and the stupidity of a certain Transportation Minister to what happened on the Titanic. After all, no one is going to die by being stuck in a tunnel for an hour or two. There’s that. Except that if there were an electrical fire in one of the tunnels with a train stuck in it, there would be no way to safely evacuate the passengers. Come on: how likely is that to happen? Not too likely, but then again, an unsinkable ocean liner wasn’t supposed to collide with an iceberg.

Jay Gould’s daughter said before she died

              Papa, fix the blinds so the bums can’t ride.

               If ride they must, they got to ride the rod.

               Let ’em put their trust in the hands of God.

               In the hands of God.

               In the hands of God.

               Let them put their trust in the hands of God.

(American folk song, one I heard on a recording by Carl Sandberg)

2 thoughts on “The Little Engine That Couldn’t

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