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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

FULL THROTTLE AND FULLY ALERT?

JR West's postcrash safety steps find skeptics


Staff writer

AMAGASAKI, Hyogo Pref. -- Each morning, express trains roar past houses and businesses along the JR Fukuchiyama Line, carrying passengers to and from work in Amagasaki and Kobe, or classes at Doshisha University's Kyotanabe campus in Kyoto Prefecture.

News photo
A JR West train last June enters the curve where a train derailed and crashed into the condominium building in the distance in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, two months earlier.

For years, those living along the line thought little of the speeding trains. But following last April's crash of a speeding commuter train into a high-rise near Amagasaki Station that killed 107 people and injured nearly 550, many now say their hearts skip a beat when trains go by.

"I get especially tense if it sounds as if the train is moving extremely fast, or if I hear a screech of the brakes," said Takekazu Kashiwagi, an Amagasaki resident who lives about 200 meters from the tracks. "Most people around here wonder just how safe it is to live so close to the tracks, especially with the fast express trains."

West Japan Railway Co. officials would tell Kashiwagi that it's very safe and point to a series of changes, especially technological upgrades, the carrier has instituted since the fatal accident. But while the changes are welcomed, doubts exists over just how much safer the trains have become.

Although the transport ministry investigation into the crash is still ongoing, JR West, in the face of intense criticism, announced last May a comprehensive program to upgrade safety.

Measures included easing timetables to allow more time for boarding and deboarding at stations, a speed reduction on curves and introduction of the latest technology to warn drivers if they go too fast.

"Last June and November, as well as in March, we changed the timetables. The result is that trains on some lines now take an extra minute or so to reach their destination," said JR West spokesman Kosuke Sugiyama.

"After we installed the latest track signal technology for the area between Amagasaki Station in the south and Shinsanda Station in the north last June, the Fukuchiyama Line was reopened. Virtually all JR West lines now have this new technology."

In addition, the railway lowered speed limits near the accident site. Formerly, trains could travel at 120 kph on straight sections and 70 kph on curves. The new limits are 95 kph for the straight track approaching the curve and 60 kph for the curve where the train derailed.

The harshest criticism of JR West following the accident was not of alleged technological deficiencies but of a corporate culture that emphasized punctuality over safety.

Former drivers and union officials spoke of being bullied and humiliated by their superiors if they ran just a few seconds late, and of an atmosphere of fear among drivers that they would receive pay cuts, demotions or other punishment if they made mistakes.

Police inspectors, as well as many at JR West, said the derailed train's 23-year-old driver, who had been on the job less than a year and had already been forced to attend one retraining session, likely felt intense pressure to speed up after he left the previous station 90 seconds behind schedule.

JR West responded to the criticism by including in its safety improvement program plans for re-educating employees to put safety first and foremost.

The message was hammered home April 1, when the carrier welcomed its new employees, most fresh out of college or technical school, with a stern message that public trust can only be regained by concentrating on safety, not speed.

But just how effective the changes have been remains highly controversial.

Kiyomichi Sugihara, general secretary of the Central Headquarters, West Japan Railway Trade Union, which represents 26,000 JR West employees, including 3,000 drivers, said the trains are basically safer now.

"There's no doubt that technological improvements have been made and that it's safer to board a JR West train than it was before the accident," he said. "But there are still other problems, especially with the specifics of how to carry out safety programs and who is responsible for implementing and enforcing them."

Not all drivers agree. Local media polls conducted earlier this month show most train drivers who responded think the new safety program has made little difference in actually improving overall safety.

More worrisome to many drivers is their work schedule and its impact on safety. On April 11, a medical research center affiliated with Nishiyodi Hospital in Osaka's Yodogawa Ward released a survey showing that 90 percent of JR West train drivers had felt fatigue at some point while on the job and 22 percent felt tired daily.

Most shockingly, 12 percent admitted they had momentarily passed out due to exhaustion or had even dozed for a few minutes while operating the train. This led to late brake applications and missed signals.

Drivers also said they sometimes were assigned the last trains of the night and then had to report for work early the following morning.

"This often means having to stay in company dormitories near stations, where they get less than five hours of sleep," said Hiroyuki Asada, a spokesman for the center involved in the survey. "JR West should ensure that its drivers get at least six hours of sleep before they operate a train."

JR West had no comment on the report. Sugihara said lack of sleep among drivers is an important issue, but not necessarily an urgent one.

"Lack of sleep is not a problem just among train crews. Airline pilots and long-haul truck drivers face the same issue," he said. "At JR West, the policy is that drivers must get five hours of sleep a night. Whether or not six hours a night is needed to operate a train safely is something to be debated."

Train operating crews in the United States are required to have at least eight hours of rest between runs, and longer if shifts are extended.

For residents who live near the tracks, though, the thought of exhausted drivers operating speeding trains is just one more reason to worry about safety, especially because there are no strict regulations on minimum distances between buildings and railroads.

"Many houses along the Fukuchiyama Line are within 10 meters of the tracks. It feels dangerous even when drivers are fully alert," resident Kashiwagi said. "I really don't want to think about how much more dangerous it might be if a driver is coming down the tracks in a state of exhaustion."



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