Ziona Schaffer

"If only there was a train to Jerusalem... to Karmiel... to Eilat," the wish of so many commuters.  Just one glance at the parking lots sprawling beside each new station as the train flashes through, is proof enough that travelling by train has become the chosen mode of transport for Israelis. Our ultramodern trains run on time, they're clean and the service on the whole is excellent. Most people will agree: more trains, more lines, more stations - less time, less pollution, less stress.

There are some constraints, however. One is to avoid the trains on Sunday mornings and Thursdays afternoons. Starting with the first train at 05.06 out of Nahariya, the whole of the Israeli army seems to be on the move. Sleepy soldiers, barely over their weekend shenanigans, with their gear in 'shimmydans' (duffel bags) are returning to their units after a hectic weekend with the 'chevre' (their friends).

From the first station anyone over the age of 21 hasn't a hope of getting a seat. And don't expect one either. They stand up for no one. You'll be lucky o get a square foot of space to balance on the for entire journey.

As the double-decker train races from stop to stop, so the corridors become more and more crammed with soldiers standing, lounging and lying on every available space. They have all come from somewhere and they're all going somewhere; they're young and vibrant and aware that they're fulfilling their duty - and frankly, I'm glad to stand up for them.

Looking down the carriage I see our Israeli army as a mosaic of shaking bodies swaying in unison to the rhythm of the speeding train. Bodies and gear scattered in khaki shapes; berets, providing dashes of purple, red and blue; the whole scene spiked with the black barrels of guns. An interesting abstract painting - not too abstract, mind you, they are trained soldiers, many fighting a real war.

And all this to the musical accompaniment of the ubiquitous cell phones. "Nu, what's happening?" "How you doing?"  "Yes Mom, I'll call when I can." "Hey, you know who was there..?" "I'm on duty...off duty...yes...rubbish...no...see you...bye.:

When the doors of the train open at Tel Aviv Central they pour out and another division of the Israeli army takes their place. That's today on Sundays and Thursdays.

But, let me tell you about my very first train journey in Israel. It was in August 1956, the day I landed in Haifa port. It took all day to clear immigration and customs, and all I had was a knapsack (smaller than the one my grandson takes to school today) with an Israeli flag sewn on the side - expression f my devoted Zionism and joy to be here on this hot, humid midsummer's day.

I was most fortunate to be met by two friends who came to take me back to Kibbutz Tzorah. They of course had no transportation, nobody did in those days, but who needed it? There was the train. "Come on, the last train to Jerusalem leaves in 15 minutes. We have to make a run for it." The run was from the port to the railway station, the three of us sprinting alongside the tracks - a distance not to be scoffed at.

We made it, puffing and panting, and found another hundred or so passengers waiting on the platform. Suddenly the loudspeaker blared forth: "Harakevet le Yerushalayim... (my heart burst with happiness). The train to Jerusalem is about to enter the station. We wish you a safe journey."  And then as an afterthought "We kindly request the passengers NOT to enter the train through the window." I felt a rumble of excitement in the crowd and then the train was there. "Get through the door," my friends yelled at me. I found myself catapulted through the door to see people falling through the windows. My good friends were already there, grabbing seats -  and so was everyone else, cheering, victorious.

But since then "Rakevet Yisreal" has progressed without a doubt. Recently I travelled from Tel Aviv to Haifa - a fast train, no more than one hour. What could happen on such a short journey? Well, after finding a seat - there were plenty available - a woman of about 50 or so came in and collapsed on the seat opposite me.

She grabbed her head in agony. "I was getting in and the doors closed on my head. Have a look, am I bleeding? What's happened to me?" This was serious. I had a look and she certainly did have two red bruises on her temples - but no blood. "This is my very first time on the train. never before in my life and look what's happened. My  children didn't tell me the doors close on the passengers heads."

When the conductor walked past, I drew his attention to his injured passenger. After checking, he returned to tell us that the door was indeed faulty. He was all care and concern. "Madam, do you want an ambulance to meet you at Haifa?" The poor woman nearly fainted. "No, no, I think I'll be OK. But ... when you travel on the train...do you have to go out of the same door you came in?" she asked in trepidation. I calmed her, gave her a drink and assured her that we would all accompany her off the train in Haifa.

Not a half hour had passed when a young soldier, same journey, same train, decided he was too hot and the carriage was stuffy. He struggled without success to open the narrow window above his head. "Conductor," he gasped, "I can't breathe, open the window." The conductor, fearful of another injury on his shift, opened the window in a jiffy.

It was one of those windows with horizontal hinges and it opened at an angle. After five minutes of fresh air there was a bang and a yell: "Ow, my head, the window..." it had collapsed on top of him. Everyone got up to see how badly he was hurt. The conductor came rushing and offered an ambulance.

He sat woefully rubbing his head and then we heard it. "Mom, I'm on my way.,.. but the train window fell on my head. No I don't think I'm hurt but come and fetch me."

All this, in a one-hour journey.

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