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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 April, 2005, 02:05 GMT 03:05 UK
Japan's fame for rail safety
By Sarah Buckley
BBC News

Japan's latest train crash will send shock waves through a country which prides itself on the efficiency and safety of its rail industry.

One Japanese station manager committed suicide a few years ago because his trains were late, and the country is widely considered to have one of the best rail safety records of anywhere in the world.

Rescuers conduct a rescue operation seen through a glass which was broken after a commuter train hurtled into an apartment complex in Amagasaki, western Japan, Monday, April 25, 2005
The accident risks shattering Japan's confidence in its railways
Monday's accident, which killed more than 100 people and injured 450, will also create great anxiety given the population's dependency on the rail network.

Nearly 60 million passenger journeys are made each day on Japan's railways, a vital lifeline for this mountainous and densely populated country.

Investigations already underway are likely to focus on two aspects of Japan's rail system which analysts say account for its exemplary safety record - training and technology.

The role of the train's driver will be closely scrutinised, following eyewitness reports that he overshot the stop line at a station prior to the crash and had been forced to reverse to let passengers alight.

Japanese train drivers may feel under pressure to make up for lost time if they are running late, as otherwise they can lose their slots in extremely tight schedules.

Survivors have said the train appeared to be going too fast round a bend just before the front four carriages derailed.

If speed was the only factor, Tsunemi Murakami, the train operator's safety director, has estimated the train would have had to have been going 133km/h (82mph) to have jumped the track - much higher than 70km/h (44mph) speed limit at the site of the accident.

The automated mechanism the train was fitted with may not have been sufficiently sophisticated to detect this.

Japanese media reports said the automatic warning system on that stretch of track was among the oldest in the country.

The media has also raised the potential effects of privatisation on the railways.

Privatisation in Japan has been generally considered a success. Unlike in the UK, the network was broken up geographically, with train operators responsible for the trains, tracks, stations and signals in their own areas.

However, the influential Daily Yomiuri questioned competition between JR West, which only became a fully privately owned company last year, and private rail companies operating in the area.

Analysts say the company is now likely to come under scrutiny as to whether it had been forced to cut costs to compete.

Training

Reports have focused on the relatively young age of the driver - just 23 with 11 months' driving experience.

But analysts say he is nevertheless likely to have received rigorous training.

Christopher Hood, director at Cardiff Japanese Studies Centre, said that the age that one begins this training varies according to the rail line - Japan Railways was privatised along geographical lines in 1987, and the country also has some 200 private rail companies.

Generally drivers start work on the railways after high school graduation, at 18, or at 22 after university, Mr Hood said.

According to drivers he has interviewed, they tend to be slightly older than their British counterparts on the JR East line, and slightly younger on the JR West and Central lines. This accident happened on a JR West train.

Japanese train drivers will often work in a variety of other capacities in the industry before they begin driving.

"They want to make sure that all the staff are familiar with all aspects of the job," said Murray Hughes, editor of Railway Gazette International.

Not just bullet trains

To most foreigners living outside Japan, the country's rail industry is probably associated with the bullet train, or shinkansen.

The first shinkansen began running in October 1964, and was introduced in order to address the inefficiencies of Japan's narrow gauge lines, which snaked around the country's many mountains.

Shinkansen (file photo)
Many people will associate Japan's railways with the shinkansen
But the shinkansen only connect major cities, so the average traveller will be more dependent on Japan's other rail lines, which generally offer express, semi-express and stopping trains.

Some journeys are fairly tortuous, involving slow local trains and several changes. But making connections is hardly ever a problem as the trains almost always run to time.

Rail efficiency is crucially important, given how heavily people depend on this form of transportation.

Japan is long, thin, and 70% of its land is mountainous, with its major conurbations squeezed along a coastal strip.

In these areas, there is simply not enough room for roads to carry all, or even a majority, of Japan's working population.

According to Yoshihiko Sato, Japanese editor of the International Railway Journal, an average person makes 130 rail trips a year, rising to 14 journeys a week in large cities such as Tokyo and Osaka.

This high density of passengers can, of course, contribute to a high death toll on the rare occasions that Japan's safety record does slip.




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