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Japan's Legendary Railway Safety

Wednesday, April 27, 2005 Posted: 11:08 AM JST [SLIDE SHOW] [PHOTOS]

Photos of Japan by Kjeld DuitsThe death toll of the train accident in the West Japanese city of Amagasaki rose to 91 today, with more than 450 people injured. It is now officially one of the worst train accidents in a country that is famous for an advanced and safe railway system.

Fewer than 100 of the 580 passengers managed to get off the train without a scratch. For at least 150 of the 450 who were wounded the situation is serious. Many are in critical condition.

This makes it the worst train accident in Japan since 1963 when 161 people died in a three-train collision. The previous year 160 people lost their lives in another accident involving three trains. These two accidents were a turning point for railway safety in Japan.

Japanese railway safety became legendary. In over forty years only one passenger died in an accident on the Shinkansen bullet train. Until Monday only three serious accidents occurred on other lines.

In 1972 30 people died when a fire broke out on a train in the Hokurikyu tunnel in the North West of Japan. In 1991 some 42 people lost their lives in a train accident in Shigaraki and five years ago five passengers died when a subway slammed into a derailed train in Tokyo.

The train accident in Amagasaki of last Monday therefore comes as an enormous shock in Japan.

The accident can probably be blamed on human error. Tuesday it was announced that the conductor of the train had lied about the distance the train had overrun at Itami station, the second last station before the accident. Monday JR West said the train had overrun by 8 meters. On Tuesday a spokesman announced that in reality it had been 40 meters. I had already written that on Monday on this site after interviews with eye witnesses.

In Japan trains stop at clearly designated spots. Passengers wait on marked places on the platform so that they can quickly board and the train needs to wait for just a few seconds. Monday morning the train had to back up to allow passengers to get off and on the train. This created a 90 second delay on the strict time schedule.

The driver probably tried to make up for the time loss. According to eye witnesses he drove much faster than the 70 kilometers per hour that is allowed in the sharp curve where the train derailed. Japanese railways usually have a system that automatically slows down a train when it drives too fast. But this system has not yet been installed on the line where the accident happened.

The dedication of the driver to the time schedule is a matter of fact at Japanese railways. In Japan you can usually set your watch to the train's schedule.

The Japanese Shinkansen connection between Tokyo and Osaka for example ordinarily has a total delay of just 0.2 minutes a year. That is a delay for thousands of trains on a connection similar to the distance between Paris and Amsterdam. Many millions of passengers make use of this connection.

This dedication is not limited to the time schedule. The turnover of drivers and conductors is minimal. Annually only about 2,000 employees leave JR West, a railway with some 46,000 workers.

There are four reasons that especially influence Japanese railway punctuality: good planning, personnel who drive exactly according to schedule, good management and administration, and good maintenance of material, railways and electrical supplies.

It is often the "small" things that make big differences. During planning it is already made sure that a train can keep on running; no yellow or red signals. A train will never have problems entering a station. Trains usually stop for very short periods, doors open for just 15 to 35 seconds.

Japanese railways manage to do this by clarifying their schedules to the second. If a train travels from station A to B, the schedule will for example state this will take 3 minutes and 15 seconds. At each station the driver checks the time, whether he stops there or not.

Drivers learn special techniques to drive exactly according to designated time schedules. If a driver pushes the handle to maximum, slows down in curves according to the prescribed speed limits, and stops exactly on the marked spot at the station, than that trip from A to B will take precisely 3 minutes and 15 seconds.

This, and the use of additional tracks at stations so that express trains can speed by without needing to stop, makes it possible to have extremely intensive use of tracks. JR West for example drives 16 to 30 trains in one direction on a single track in one hour. During the busiest period in the morning the company drives no less than 41 trains on a single direction between Osaka and Kobe, the railway connection the crashed train was on its way to. In most other countries 8 trains per hour is the maximum.

There is enormous competition between railway companies in Japan. The Japanese traveler can usually choose between railway companies. There are for example three companies with railway connections between the cities of Osaka and Kobe. Each has its own infrastructure and material. In all of Japan there are no less than 187 railway companies, including monorails and subways. Together they transport more than 22 billion people per year, almost four times the total world population.

Keywords: special_report national_news

Related Links:

  1. Photographs of the Japanese railway system
  2. Sites about the Japanese railway system

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1 comments so far post your own

1 | At 02:35pm on Apr 28 2005, M. Grant wrote:
May this most tragic circumstance not dishearten the Japanese citizenry, nor dissuade them in the least from courageously going forward, continuing to provide an example of beauty and graciousness to the world. It seems that in life on the planet, perhaps at times, those 'out there' doing the best, setting the best example, are in line for attack. We cannot know the depth of the 'why' of such cirucmstances and occurrences, yet we can hold firmly to an unfailing commitment to the hope of the worth of each human life, and the strength which community compassion and support can provide in such times.

Dear Japan, don't ever give up. Your country is beautifully appointed and beautifully maintained. Hold your head high. Keep going.
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