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Sunday, June 25, 2006


Lives in their hands

Staff writer

Uniformed officials of East Japan Railway Co. are solemnly but methodically at work. Their train has just made an emergency stop after running over a middle-age man, who is either unconscious or dead. The driver radios the control office in central Tokyo, from where police and an ambulance are alerted. The driver jumps off the train and checks the brakes. The conductor moves along the train to make sure all the passengers are OK.

News photo
The view from the cab. Drivers are trained to watch carefully for unexpected events, including suicide leaps.

Then the pair have the unenviable job of attending to the victim until the emergency services arrive. It is they who must administer first aid -- or move the body off the tracks and put a white sheet over it.

"Pick up the scattered body parts, if there are any," a senior official calls out to others gathered there.

Fortunately, it's only a mock accident. But the atmosphere is tense as a dozen acting conductors and drivers simulate a jinshin jiko (literally, a "human accident," but most are suicides) one recent afternoon at the railway company's training center in Omiya, Saitama Prefecture. The acted-out drama was part of an intensive, two-day retraining course all train crew undergo every two years.

To bring a sense of reality to the experience, the officials drove an actual train to the site, where a doll stuffed with 50 kg of sand had been placed on the tracks.

"It is our fate to encounter jinshin jiko and a mechanical breakdown," said Takashi Aso, a former driver and training instructor who was at the controls three times when his train hit someone.

Speedy recovery

No doubt it is because of the sense of duty that Aso describes, that -- come rain or shine or "human accident" -- Japan's trains almost always run on time.

And JR East's staff are proud of their speedy recovery work. (Company officials revealed, with much hesitation, that 18 jinshin jiko took place on the Yamanote Line last year -- surprisingly few as that may seem to many Tokyoites familiar with the frequent announcements of train delays due to the phenomenon.)

News photo
JR East workers practice how to quickly remove a body from the tracks.

Of the 32,000-plus suicides in Japan in 2003, those committed by people leaping into the path of "moving vehicles," including those other than trains, accounted for 2.1 percent of male fatalities and 3.6 percent of female ones, according to health ministry statistics.

"At the earliest, we can get a train back to work in 15 to 16 minutes," Aso said proudly, "though when the body gets entangled in the trains, it gets messy and takes between 1 hour and 1 1/2 hours."

How do these drivers and conductors manage to do their best under the worst circumstances? The answer seems to lie in the JR East culture of safety and punctuality, the counseling service provided for traumatized personnel and -- perhaps most importantly -- the camaraderie in the workplace. As a result, after a distressing event like a suicide, senpai (senior) drivers often take their upset kohai (junior) colleagues out for karaoke and drinks, say trainers, who quickly add that such pleasures are enjoyed only modestly, so as not to affect their duty the following day.

Drivers at JR East are typically hired after high school at age 18, or after college at 22. Then employees who hope to become drivers/conductors are assigned to a station for a few years to become familiar with routine duties such as selling tickets and giving directions to passengers. They are then enrolled at the training center in Fukushima Prefecture to study traffic rules, mechanical expertise and post-accident measures for three months. After that, they are sent to the front lines -- getting on-the-job lessons from senior drivers for four or five months, before taking a licensing exam mandated by the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry. The whole process -- from hiring to accreditation -- normally takes four or five years.

During the licensing exam, both an applicant's physical and mental aptitudes are tested. One test, for example, involves having them repeatedly add up one-digit figures to check the speed and the accuracy of their computations, as well as their attention curve, railway officials say. To ensure the right caliber of person for the right job, the company even has internally certified aptitude examiners among its employees.

Train staff, in particular, must also keep to extremely precise schedules. For instance, someone who starts driving a train at 7:38 a.m. must show up at work 40 minutes before that, so their shift starts at 6:58 a.m.

"If you are late to work by five seconds, you are still considered late," said Tetsuo Ishige, director of the Omiya training center [he has since moved to a different department]. At the company dormitory where drivers are allowed to take a five- to seven-hour sleep, they are woken up not by clocks but by air mattresses that they set to automatically inflate at a designated time -- quietly, so as not to wake up coworkers.

Because safety is their watchword, drivers in the Tokyo metropolitan area are allowed to work for only up to 2 hours and 10 minutes before taking a break. And they take extra care with their health, Ishige says, noting that, if someone is sick and takes a day off, someone else will have to fill their shoes -- and that will be an added burden for that colleague.

At the end of the day, though, the corporate and individual sense of responsibility toward punctuality and safety is clearly the driving force among staff of the Yamanote Line and all other JR East lines.

"What I tell trainees to take to heart is, we are the pros of transport," said Ishige, who says he will never forget the one and only jinshin jiko he experienced 30 years ago. "We must be intensely aware all the time that our passengers' lives are in our hands."

For other related stories, please click the following links:
Tokyo's ring of steel
Simulated calamities
No end is an end in itself
Goodies to let you live with the Y
Smiles on retail's fastest track

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