By: Hillel Kuttler
A wool cap perched atop his noggin to fend off an early-November head cold, Robert Schrager stepped off bus No. 41 at 7:40 a.m., crossed Nahariya’s HaGa’aton Street and ascended the train station’s stairs.
For the Ma’alot resident, riding the rails is the most relaxing leg of a two-hour commute, each way, which Schrager makes for his sales/marketing job with a voice-communications company in the Tirat HaCarmel region of southern Haifa.
Schrager, 53, arises at 5:00 on weekday mornings, attends synagogue services, returns home to pack lunch and catches the 6:45 bus to Nahariya. After the 40-minute train trip, Schrager rides a bus for 15 minutes to reach his office. He arrives home at 8:30 most nights.
“People think I’m nuts. But I can watch videos, read books, watch documentaries on YouTube, listen to podcasts and try to learn Hebrew words,” Schrager said of the commute as he settled into a window seat and the train pulled away.
“You can’t do anything in the car. It’s not relaxing. Physically and mentally, it’s so much more stressful. I just choose not to,” he said of the driving option.
In his native Chicago, Schrager often commuted one hour each way by car – “and I don’t feel like doing that here,” he said.
Schrager’s monthly train pass, called Chofshi Chodshi, costs 300 shekalim and is provided by his employer.
Israel Railways doesn’t have a station in Ma’alot, but the system’s recent expansion is meant, in part, to expand job opportunities for Northern residents. In October 2016, an old route through the Jezreel Valley was re-opened, linking Beit Shean and Haifa. This past September, a line began running from Karmiel to Haifa, while another line goes from Karmiel’s new station all the way to Beer Sheva.
The Karmiel track is expected to eventually extend to Kiryat Shemona, in the Galilee’s northernmost tip. That would create a long, but still reasonable, rail commute to Haifa.
Someone who travels far by train is Yaron Libman. A Nahariya resident and New Jersey native, Libman takes the railroad each day to Tel Aviv, backtracks one station to Herzliya, then drives his car from its parking lot to his job in Ra’anana. He drops off the car at the lot on Sunday mornings and retrieves it on Thursday afternoons.
After his employer’s reimbursement and taxes, Libman recoups about 40 percent of his 680-shekel cost for a monthly rail pass.
The commute averages 2:15 each way. Without a rail option, explained Libman, who works in product management, “It would make it impossible for me to live in Nahariya and effectively do my job.”
Another Nahariya resident, Netana Bitton, relies on the rails, although not for work.
A Massachusetts native and a retiree, Bitton opts for the train to visit friends recuperating from medical procedures at the Assuta Haifa Hospital in the Lev HaMifratz station’s shopping mall. She also uses the railroad to see her son, who lives in Netanya.
At the senior citizens’ rate of 6 shekels each way to Lev HaMifratz, the price (half off) is right, she said.
“It’s a lot more comfortable,” Bitton said of the train. “I have osteoarthritis in my left knee, so I can stretch it out, which I can’t do on a bus. I like the nice little table: I can write and read on it, eat or put on my makeup.”
The previous night, Bitton went by rail to Lev HaMifratz to catch a movie. She gave the film a negative review.
Murder on the Orient Express did have one redeeming quality, though: It’s set on a long train journey.