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The fatal train wreck in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, has revealed how JR train drivers are under constant pressure to make up any delay, prompting the public to have second thoughts about a society obsessed with punctuality. running may have caused that fatal accident.
On April 25, a West Japan Railway Co. commuter train on the Fukuchiyama Line jumped the tracks and crashed into a nine-story condominium building. The 23-year-old driver had been speeding, even as the train approached a curve, apparently to make up at least 90 seconds in lost time.
The accident killed 107 people, including the driver, and injured more than 540 -- Japan's fourth-deadliest postwar train crash.
The accident not only led to the loss of many lives but has also shaken the foundations of a society in which punctuality and efficiency are considered virtues.
Yoshiharu Miyuki, a 41-year-old Fukuchiyama Line driver, had long feared just such a catastrophe.
"For a long time now there have been many factors that could have led to a major accident, including putting pressure on drivers to prioritize punctual operations. But the company had just been lucky," he said.
Investigators have determined that speeding by the driver, Ryujiro Takami, who had been on the job for 11 months, was the chief cause of the accident.
The police theory is that Takami, fearful of being punished, was attempting to make up lost time after overshooting the platforms of preceding stations and having to back up.
A JR West driver said the operating manual requires drivers to report delays of 30 seconds or longer.
According to other JR West drivers, many motormen routinely go over the speed limit to make up for even the shortest delays as competition with other railways in the area where the accident occurred is fierce and timetables leave little margin for error.
JR West's policy on punctuality was clarified April 1 when it instructed all employees to make all-out efforts to ensure trains run on time because "delays erode customer trust."
Officials of the Japan Confederation of Railway Workers' Unions have accused JR West of putting additional psychological pressure on drivers through "re-education," in which erring train drivers are forced to write journals to reflect on their mistakes and vow never to repeat them if they want to retain their jobs.
Under the program, some employees are also ordered to weed fields or stand on station platforms to greet or send off drivers when trains arrive or leave.
Such treatment is seen as humiliating for drivers.
Motorman Takami underwent a 13-day re-education program last year, and twice previously when he was a conductor. He would have been made to undergo a similar program had the accident not occurred because of the platform overruns that day and because the train was running late.
Sakae Hattori, 74, a former train driver who lives in Saga Prefecture, was stunned by news of the Amagasaki accident.
His 44-year-old son, Masaki, committed suicide in September 2001 after going through a re-education program because his train was late by 50 seconds.
"The program is more like bullying and denying a person's personality. I can assume that Mr. Takami came under the same pressure as my son did," said Sakae, who was a train driver before the Japanese National Railways was privatized to form JR West and six other carriers in 1987.
"Even though passengers in Japan tend to complain about trains being late, the company should have made efforts to give more priority to safety than to anything else, not pressing drivers to speed up," he said.
Sakae is in the midst of a lawsuit to get compensation from JR West, claiming the re-education program led to his son's suicide.
An obsession with being on time was also seen in the behavior of two JR West drivers who were aboard the derailed train. The drivers, neither of whom was hurt in the accident, left the scene without helping to rescue passengers and headed straight to work.
According to JR West officials, one of the two called his supervisor by cell phone to say he had been on the derailed train. But the supervisor did not instruct him to rescue any of the injured and instead said, "Make sure you're not late."
The 27-year-old driver later confessed in writing that he was sorry for doing nothing to help.
"When I think back calmly now, I was irresponsible not only as a JR employee but as a human being," he said.
JR West is now devising a safety improvement plan for submission to the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry within this month, including making train schedules less tight, reassessing the re-education program and installing an advanced version of automatic train stop systems.
Meanwhile, the accident has also given the public pause to think about a society that worships punctuality.
When Hideo Suzuki, a 58-year-old company employee from Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, visited the accident site to pray for those who died, he also expressed sympathy to JR West employees standing nearby for their plight following the accident.
"I did so because I don't think JR West is the only party to blame," Suzuki said.
"What about us who complain about several minutes' delay? Don't we also have to change our way of thinking?"
Kiyoko Tsuchida, 61, came from Kyoto to place flowers at the accident site and said she was shocked by reports of the constant pressure drivers are under to be punctual to the second.
"I feel sorry for both the passengers and the driver, who was forced to be on time," she said.
Yuko Mito, an economic journalist who wrote a book about Japan's rail network, explained that the country's railways have been forced to increase the number of train runs to respond to a sharp rise in passengers, especially since the early 20th century when the country was in the process of rapid urbanization and industrialization.
Now, trains carry 21 billion passengers a year on more than 27,000 km of track nationwide, according to the transport ministry.
Railways try to be punctual to the second to avoid inconveniencing passengers and causing anxiety among railway employees, Mito said.
"When you look at Tokyo's Shinjuku Station, the busiest station in the world, with 1.6 million passengers a day, you will find that the platform would be instantly crowded even with a few minutes' delay during rush hour," she said. "To cause train delays at such times is like committing a crime."
Mito, however, said the accident in Amagasaki has made her think that Japan needs to depart from its relentless pursuit of punctuality on the railways.
The country should instead establish a system that would make passengers feel less uncomfortable in the face of delays, she said, such as by handing out travel vouchers for future journeys, giving children toys to play with and ensuring that passengers have access to toilet facilities.
"In addition, Japanese people should adopt a more relaxed way of living," Mito said. "We have to change our system and society. I don't think we can continue like this forever."
The Japan Times
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