Management & Operations

Japan scrutinizes rail operators, common practices in wake of disaster

Posted on May 1, 2005

While investigators continue to search for answers in Japan’s deadliest train accident in more than 40 years, rail officials are being questioned about driver training procedures and a possible obsession with punctuality. The crash took place April 25 in Amagasaki, a suburb of Japan’s second-largest city, Osaka. At least 106 people died after the seven-car commuter train jumped the tracks and crashed into a nine-story apartment building. Investigators believe the train was traveling 62 mph when it derailed, well above the speed limit for that part of the track. Some of the passengers said the train seemed to be traveling faster than normal. In addition, the train’s driver, 23-year-old Ryujiro Takami, had overshot the previous station, causing a 90-second delay and putting him behind schedule. Stones on the tracks have also been suggested as a possible cause. Takami was one of the 106 people killed in the crash. About 450 others were injured in what was Japan’s worst rail accident since 161 people were killed in a collision near Tokyo in 1963. In the wake of the crash, authorities searched several offices of West Japan Railway Co., the rail operator, and seized documents that might suggest criminal negligence. They have also questioned a conductor who was supervising Takami. Another byproduct of the crash is a call for state-supervised tests for all train drivers. Japan’s transport minister suggested that the government might need to become involved in driver certification. “I wonder if we should be leaving driver qualification to train operators,” Kazuo Kitagawa told reporters. Osamu Yomono, vice president of the Japan Confederation of Railway Workers, told reporters that the train operator “uses terror to force its employees to follow orders.” Takami, who had been on the job for 11 months, reportedly had been reprimanded twice for running late. Yomono said Takami was trying to avoid another reprimand by speeding to make up time. Japan’s rail system is used by nearly 60 million people daily and is considered one of the world’s safest.

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