SHOCKWAVES spread across Japan on April 25 as the country struggled to come to terms with the disastrous derailment of a heavily-loaded JR West commuter train at Amagasaki in the suburbs of Osaka.

At 09.18 a seven-car Series 207 EMU forming a Commuter Rapid service from Takarazuka to Doshisha-mae derailed on a 300m radius curve between Tsukaguchi and Amagasaki on JR West’s Fukuchiyama Line. The train struck a trackside mast and then smashed into a nine-storey apartment block just 6m from the track.

The first car penetrated the building, and the second was bent into a U-shape and crushed to half its normal width. The third was badly damaged and the fourth was thrown to the right, blocking the adjacent track. The rear three cars remained upright and relatively undamaged. As many as 107 people were killed, with 458 injured, many seriously, making this the worst accident on Japan’s rail network since 1963. Among the dead was the train driver, 23-year old Ryujiro Takami, whose actions before the accident have been the focus of attention.

A worse disaster was averted when the driver of a Limited Express heading from Shin-Osaka to Kinosaki Onsen on the opposite track noticed that a signal was not displaying a normal aspect, braked and brought his train to a halt about 100m from the site of the derailment.

The Aircraft & Railway Accidents Investigation Commission has indicated that the immediate cause was excessive speed in the curve, with the leading car overturning. The line speed limit through the curve was 70 km/h, but investigators found that the train was travelling at 126 km/h just before it derailed. Takami had applied the emergency brake about 70m ahead of the curve, but this was far too late to avoid catastrophe.

Investigations have revealed some telling events just prior to the accident, and it is clear that JR West has some serious questions to answer - the accident is being investigated by the Hyogo Prefectural Police. It turns out that Takami had overshot the platform at the previous stop, Atami, by 70m, obliging him to reverse the train and costing a 90s delay. On the following 4 km section of straight track through Inadera and Tsukaguchi, he had sought to make up lost time, realising too late that his train was travelling too fast for the approaching curve.

Takami had qualified as a driver only 11 months earlier, and in June 2004 he had overshot another station by 100m, for which he had received a warning. His errors were apparently far from unique, as the transport ministry reprimanded JR West on March 28 for repeatedly overshooting platforms in the previous two months.

This may reflect competitive pressures at JR West, which became a fully-fledged private company in March 2004. In and around Osaka JR West competes with long-standing private operators such as Hankyu Corp, and more trains have been squeezed into already tight timetables on busy routes. In one case an extra stop was inserted without extra time being added to the timetable, and drivers told police that they had to run their trains faster to keep to the schedule, The Japan Times reported last month. Shortly after the accident, JR West Safety Director Tsunemi Murakami had told the same paper that ’we will review the timetable and try to find out details about the delays. If necessary, we’ll consider revising it.’

Investigators will certainly be assessing JR West’s driver training procedures. While we have no doubt that initial training is thorough, the treatment of drivers who delay trains appears to leave much to be desired. Media reports cite union officials complaining of ’bullying’, punishment, threats and verbal abuse, with drivers being ’re-educated’ after delays or other misdemeanours. Tahami had been reprimanded in the past, and he would have doubtless felt considerable psychological pressure to make up time.

It will come as a surprise to some that no system was in place on the Fukuchiyama Line to prevent drivers exceeding the speed limit at the sharp curve after the long straight, although JR West was about to install what is known as ATS-P, which would almost certainly have prevented the crash. The Fukuchiyama Line was equipped with ATS-SW, which uses balises to check the speed of a train in advance of a stop signal and apply the brakes if necessary. But it has no continuous speed supervision function and does not monitor speed in relation to curves or other locations with speed limits.

Transport Minister Kazuo Kitagawa said on May 2 that he would not permit services to resume on the line until ATS-P was fitted; he also indicated that equivalent systems would be made compulsory on some other routes, with tax benefits and grants possibly made available to mitigate the cost.

The question of crashworthiness of the lightweight steel bodyshells of Class 207 is bound to be raised. It seems unlikely that any rail vehicle structure would survive a high-energy impact with a building, and we believe that the Japanese philosophy of building lightweight trains with low energy costs and aiming to prevent collisions is fundamentally sound.

Although JR West says in its 2004 annual report that ’providing safe, reliable transportation’ is the first of six items in its ’heart and action’ management philosophy, the company felt obliged to announce a five-point policy on May 7 to improve safety management, while a safety advisory panel will be set up. This will need to examine the company’s treatment of its staff and the prevailing culture in a very competitive environment. Acknowledgement that all was not well is reflected in the decision announced on May 17 by JR West adviser Masataka Ide, a former President and Chairman of the company, to resign in June. Current President Takeshi Kakiuchi and Chairman Shojiro Nanya have indicated that they too will step down, once compensation has been agreed for passengers and their families and a programme of safety improvements has been put in hand.