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      Trials of an Israeli Train Traveller

      Israel is slowly learning to be a service society, but it's hard in a cultural melting pot. The courts have decided to speed up the process.
      By David Lev
      First Publish: 11/4/2010, 12:58 AM / Last Update: 11/4/2010, 2:21 PM

      Flash 90

      “It seems as if one of the things you have to get used to when you move to Israel is a different service ethic.” That's the conclusion that T., a resident of the north, came to after a recent “adventure” on Israel Railways.

      Speaking with Israel National News, T. shared her tale of  a train trip she tried to take several days ago. “I needed to get to Jerusalem, which, according to the schedule given by the train, I should have been able to do easily enough. But apparently there was construction in the Haifa area, which caused major delays in the train schedules.” Point one: Israel, a young country with a vibrant economy,  is always building.

      Unfortunately, said T., who preferred not to publicize her name, she had no advance information of the delays – and even when she arrived at the train station where she was to board a train for Tel Aviv, she had no idea why she was being shunted into a shuttle bus, which was apparently to take her to another train station. “I must attribute it to the fact that my Hebrew isn't that good, and I had a hard time understanding what was going on – but it looked as if most of the Israelis there seemed to be just as confused. The bottom line is it took me five and a half hours to get from the north to Jerusalem, and cost me NIS 150.”

      After adventures on trains and buses, T. threw in the towel at the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station and took a sherut taxi to Jerusalem – and because she was already late for an important medical appointment, she took another taxi from the Jerusalem Central Bus Station to Hadassah Hospital.  She suggested that an effort be made to give passengers ongoing information, and overcome the sometimes offensive indifference some of the Railway staff displayed to her dilemma.
      There is an implicit contract between a public transportation carrier and a rider, and violation of that contract can and often does get a hearing in court.


      “I had schedules thrown at me without explanations, I was ignored when I asked questions, and I was given incorrect information about schedules and routes,” T. said, forgetting for a moment that most workers are not highly educated, may be immigrants themselves, don't speak English and that she cannot express herself or understand much Hebrew.

      When she demanded a refund for the money she spent on tickets, T. was presented with forms and documents, and said she was given contradictory instructions on what to do.  “I would really like a refund, but just as much I would like to know what to do about the service and misinformation I was given on the way,” she said.

      INN decided to help, and here are its findings:

      Israel Railways, for its part, suggested that T. file an official complaint on its web site. A spokesman said the company faithfully follows up on each and every complaint it receives, and that if T. deserves a refund, she would certainly receive one.

      But, as T. said, what she would like to change is the attitude on the part of service people of all sorts. Different people cope with the issue in different ways. “I can't tell you how many times I have gone into a store and asked for help from a clerk, only to be made to feel that I was somehow interrupting her from some important work – when all she was doing, from what I could tell, was talking to her friend on the phone,” said Yael, a resident of Modi'in. “I've been in Israel over a decade, and I've made it one of my missions to 'educate' these people on what customer service is all about.”

      When it comes to public transportation, customers do have options beyond just complaining or “educating” if they wish to go all the way. According to attorney Mark Kampler of Rosh HaAyin, “there is an implicit contract between a public transportation carrier and a rider, and violation of that contract can and often does get a hearing in court.” Generally, courts will hear cases and make awards if the customer can prove that s/he suffered actual damages.

      For example, Kampler says, buses have to stop at bus stops – and if they don't they are legally liable for breach of contract, and customers have successfully sued bus companies in such situations. In a 2007 case eerily like that of T., a professor successfully sued Israel Railways when a train he was waiting for never showed up.

      The professor had been scheduled to lecture at a school in Akko, and had timed his trip to match the train's schedule. But due to a problem on the line, the train never made it to Binyamina, where he was waiting. Train officials and even the information call-in center claimed not to know where the train was and when it would show up. Fearing he would miss the lecture, the professor went back to his car and drove – hitting traffic and arriving late for his lecture. While he was told that his lateness was “understandable,” the professor said he was never invited back to lecture at the school. He sued Israel Railways for NIS 2,500 in damages.

      In the end, the court rejected the railroad's arguments (one of which was “if the plaintiff needed to get to his appointment at a certain time, he should have left his house earlier, to take into account possible delays”) and awarded the plaintiff a total of NIS 860. It's a small victory, but one that could be called a moral victory – and for people like T., who is just looking for a little help and understanding, if not on-time buses and trains, a moral victory might just be enough.

      Addendum by INN editor R.:
      Israel is not alone in suffering from these problems, though Jews from abroad probably have high expectations from their own Jewish state. Just this past August, our editor found herself in Penn Station, NYC at 9 a.m., having bought an express train  ticket by computer (as one can do in Israel) to Harrisburg, Pa. to visit family. After a half-hour wait, with no air conditioning in the hot, muggy and crowded terminal, a chance look at the board showed that the train had been cancelled several minutes earlier. No solution was suggested by loudspeaker, the workers asked were surly and uninformed, and after waiting for 30 minutes with hundreds of people on a giant queue that formed for the purpose of exchanging the tickets, she and they were told that the queue is in the wrong place and everyone had to start all over again somewhere else. In the end, the new tickets were for an interminable local. This switch could have been announced ahead of time, and the cancelled train ticket could just have been considered good for the next train instead of having a perspiring mob stand on line for an hour. It took the entire day to get to Harrisburg.  And America is supposed to be a service-oriented, polite society...