20% of traffic at peak times on Israel's congested roads comprises heavy trucks and on average, trucks take up twice as much space as the equivalent in their size in ordinary vehicles. This problem is particularly acute on Highway 6 between 7 am and 10 am during the week, when hundreds of heavy trucks transport hazardous materials.
Trucks are important cargo transporters in Israel; they account for almost 90% of all goods transported on Israel's roads. They are indispensable, but their presence on the roads could be significantly reduced. Each cargo train gets 60-70 trucks off the roads. The railways could constitute a useful alternative to trucks, but this would require railway infrastructure for cargo trains and connecting industrial zones to it.
For an entire generation, however, the state has focused on passenger trains, while neglecting freight trains. Figures published by the Central Bureau of Statistics show that while passenger traffic on Israel Railways has grown fivefold since 2000, train-transported cargoes have increased by only 12% to 9.1 million tons a year.
Furthermore, the output of freight trains in terms of tons transported per kilometer remained almost unchanged in 1990-2012. During these years, the level of commerce in Israel rose, with demand for freight transportation increasing as a result, but this demand was supplied almost completely by trucks.
The results of diverting demand from railways to trucks are obvious: more air pollution, more traffic jams, and worst of all, more fatal traffic accidents. "Trucks are the bad guys on the road. Their share of total distance traveled is far less than their share of fatalities and damage," a transportation sector source told "Globes."
Although the proportion of traffic accidents involving trucks is not that high - 5% - they cause 12% of the fatalities. In addition to this disturbing statistic, the growing presence of trucks on the roads imposes another cost on the economy - road maintenance. Trucks cause a great deal of wear and tear on roads containing asphalt.
As if that were not enough, some trucks carry hazardous materials. Railway transportation with sealing, while reducing contact with people to a minimum, is very important for transporting goods of this kind. This form of transportation is clearly preferable to transportation in trucks on Israel's congested roads.
"Transportation 24 hours a day"
Railway cargo transportation has been somewhat rejuvenated in the past four years. Although the infrastructure has not been improved, Israel Railways has found a creative solution - increasing the output of the existing tracks. According to Uri Sharir, 42, who has been cargo division general manager at Israel Railways for the past seven years, this progress has resulted from moving employees around and streamlining procedures. "We set ambitious targets and set up a new managerial team with planning and correct utilization of track time. This has revolutionized the cargo division over the past four years. We increased the volume of cargo transported by 50% - from 6.5 million tons to 9.2 million tons.
"The plan for next year is to exceed 10 million tons, and in four years, I believe that with the new ports, we can reach 13 million tons," Sharir says. "This dramatic change is being done with the same infrastructure - we're transporting 24 hours a day. We've improved the precision of the railway cars. If the same railway car leaves and arrives on time, this increases the capacity."
The cargo division has realized that in order to boost the output of freight trains, it is crucial to enhance employees' motivation. "Everyone loves being part of something successful," Sharir says. "I'll give you an example. We started sending an automatic SMS to every driver reaching a destination comparing his performance to the target. The employees' output has risen steeply since then."
The cargo division is proud that the railway has resumed its transportation of steel, a hazardous task, in the past year. The steel is moved from the ports to Kiryat Gat and transported from there to Iskoor Metal and Steels factories, where it is used to manufacture various products, including steel road dividers, electrical poles, and furniture items. At this stage, it does not amount to a substantial proportion of total transportation, but Sharir says that it is important news that will also contribute to road safety.
"You can always see trucks carrying steel on Highway 6. Each truck carries three giant steel cylinders, each of which weighs 10 tons. It's frightening. The whole idea is not just to be a more environmentally conscious country, which is very important, but also to avoid traffic jams and reduce the risk of traffic accidents," Sharir says.
Israel is lagging behind
Despite the cargo division's achievements in recent years, Israel still lags behind by international comparison. In terms of tons per kilometer, Israel Railways currently accounts for 6.5% of total cargo, compared with 15-18% in Western European countries.
"Because Israel is a relatively small country, a lot of cargo transportation is for short distances, for which railways are less worthwhile, so I don't think that this is a huge failure. At the same time, taking into account the high road congestion, there should be more motivation for the railway to carry more cargo," a transportation industry source told "Globes."
Despite their drawbacks for the economy, for the end consumers, trucks have significant advantages over railways. They are flexible with respect to loading and unloading points and arrival times and are more suitable for carrying small quantities of goods.
The main reason currently limiting the growth of railway cargo transportation is lack of infrastructure. While existing railway tracks are mostly designed for passenger trains, cargo trains make their journeys during down times at night when the tracks are available.
The solution awaited by the cargo division is construction of an eastern track. According to the most optimistic scenarios, however, this will happen only in another seven years. The eastern track will connect Lod, Rosh HaAyin, Kfar Saba, and eastern Hadera, and hook up with the Jezreel Valley railway track. It will run along Highway 6, thereby cutting down on the number of trucks traveling on that road. This track is designed mostly for freight, including during the day.
Another solution for increasing the volume of railway cargoes is construction of branches of the tracks to large plants, which has begun to materialize over the past six months. The plan is to build cargo terminals in industrial zones for the nearby plants in Kedma, Ayal, Karmiel, Tirat Yehuda, and Migdal HaEmek, for example.
Building branches for plants, quarries, and other facilities in Israel is critical, given the relatively short distances in the country. As of now, in most cases, bringing merchandise to the plant itself from the railway terminal requires supplementary transportation by trucks, which increases transportation costs and makes railway transportation irrelevant to many industrial plants.
A transportation sector source says, "In contrast to passenger trains, the statutory challenges that railways must meet in order to obtain approval for cargo tracks are irrational. No one wants to take this on, regardless of what you tell them. In this state of affairs, developing a network of cargo railway tracks like the passenger railways tracks that have been developed in recent years is a very difficult task."
Most activity in railway cargo transportation involves the ports - Ashdod Port and Haifa Port. Increasing the ports' output is therefore also likely to increase the volume of railway cargo transportation. Israel Railways does not believe that the new ports scheduled for construction in three years will increase the volume of cargo activity in themselves; their only effect will be a possible increase in the traffic of marine containers as a result of the new ports' opening.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on April 29, 2018
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