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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

'SCARS RUN DEEP'

Mourners mark anniversary of JR West crash


Staff writer

AMAGASAKI, Hyogo Pref. -- Relatives of the dead and survivors gathered Tuesday morning to mark the first anniversary of a train crash that killed 107 people and injured nearly 550.

News photo
Naho Asano, who was injured and whose mother was killed in last April's train crash in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, cries during a ceremony Tuesday on the first anniversary of the accident.

They placed flowers near the curve on the JR Fukuchiyama Line where the train jumped the rails before it slammed into a condominium high-rise. Many bowed and offered a brief prayer before hurrying off to catch a train on the same line.

At JR West Amagasaki Station, as well as nine other JR West stations in Hyogo and Osaka prefectures, volunteers collected signatures of condolence from commuters.

While many of the messages were general expressions of sympathy, others warned of continued safety shortcomings on the JR system, as evidenced by the Monday halt of JR East's Yamanote Line in Tokyo due to track problems.

JR West officials held a formal memorial service early Tuesday in Amagasaki attended by 567 people from 87 families who lost relatives, as well as 316 survivors and their families, and transport minister Kazuo Kitagawa.

"The scars for those who lost loved ones run deep. I can find no other words to express myself other than I'm sorry," said JR West President Masao Yamazaki, who apologized no less than six times in his short message of condolence.

Yamazaki's apology angered some of the families of the dead, who used the service to blast JR West's actions since the accident.

Naho Asano, who was seriously injured and whose mother was killed, criticized the carrier for refusing to discuss with the families its responsibility or specific measures it might take to ensure that only safe drivers operate trains.

"When I met with JR officials, I suggested that if a driver overran a station, rather than being allowed to continue operating the train, he should immediately be replaced so an accident can be prevented," Asano said. "But they said it would be difficult to change drivers on the spot. JR West claims it is emphasizing safety. But is it really?"

JR West officials have remained tight-lipped about the cause of the accident and have refused to comment on the extent of the driver's responsibility. The driver, who also was killed, overshot the platform at the preceding station and had to back up, falling some 90 seconds behind schedule. It is believed he was trying to make up the lost time to avoid punishment when he took the 70 kph curve at more than 100 kph, causing the train to derail.

Senior JR West managers have also refused to meet with a network of relatives of the crash dead who want an explanation.

"The accident is still under investigation, but we all understand that this kind of an accident must not happen again," transport chief Kitagawa said.

Three of the dead and 25 of the injured were students at Doshisha University's campus in Kyotanabe, Kyoto Prefecture, where hundreds of students, family members and faculty held their own memorial service at noon.

Doshisha officials say most of the injured are back in school, although one or two remain absent. JR West has offered interest-free loans to students who have missed classes, but many are looking for answers, not money.

"I think the No. 1 question we're all asking is 'How could JR West let this happen?' " said Asako Hara, a 19-year-old student who was an acquaintance of one of the injured.

Evidence gathered by Hyogo police and the transport ministry's railway accident investigation committee so far points to negligence on the part of the dead train driver.

On Monday, the committee announced the train was traveling between 115 and 117 kph when it entered the curve and derailed. The speed limit was 70 kph.

The committee also ruled out brake failure as a cause of the accident. Its next step will be to solicit advice from academic experts. A final report is expected to be issued by March.

Both JR West President Yamazaki and transport minister Kitagawa spoke on improvements in safety technology that the carrier has introduced over the past year.

Following the crash, it was found that the fatal stretch of track did not have an ATS-P system, which would automatically stop a train exceeding the speed limit.

But while JR West is rushing to install this technology on all of its lines, former company officials have charged that until the accident it placed priority on installing state-of-the art electronic timetables that informed passengers if there were delays or how many minutes until the next train arrived.

This was done, they allege, because JR West was facing intense competition with two private railroads in the area, Hanshin Electric Railway Co. and Hankyu Corp.

JR West has refused to directly comment on this.



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