Japan Rail Crash Raises Questions

April 29, 2005

The death toll from Monday’s commuter train crash in Japan has reached 106 with the discovery of three more bodies on Thursday, including the 23-year old driver. In addition to the dead more 450 people were injured in the country’s worst single rail disaster.

Several questions have been raised by the tragedy, which seems increasingly likely to have been caused by excessive speed, as the young driver sought to make up lost time. The train was running all of 90 seconds late, as it had overrun the platform at its previous stop. According to a report from the BBC, a data recorder recovered at the crash site showed that the train was travelling 100km/h (62mph) at the time of the accident – well above the 70km/h (42 mph) limit for that section of track. In most countries that would be considered “de minimis,” but apparently not in Japan, where the punctuality of the country’s trains is legendary.

Authorities are investigating whether the training and certification of individual train drivers should be left to the companies who operate Japan’s vast rail network. At the very least they are suggesting that a standardized national test should be required before certification.

A larger question concerns the obsession with punctuality. Union representatives indicated that it was not unusual for the train companies to reprimand employees and assign extra work for even the most minor errors. The train’s driver, Ryujiro Takami, had been reprimanded twice while serving as a conductor for the company, and had been assigned to a “re-education program,” when he overran a station last year.

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