Japanese officials boost inspections of JR Hokkaido

Kyodo, JIJI

The transport ministry on Tuesday beefed up its inspections of Hokkaido Railway Co. over rail defects the firm left unaddressed across its entire service area.

The ministry increased the number of inspectors from four to nine and extended its inspection period to a week through Friday from the initial three days through Monday, to cover not only the railroad’s track maintenance division but also train maintenance and operation units, officials said.

The ministry will increase the number of team members to 20 from Wednesday to cover inspections of all of the company’s branch offices in Hokkaido.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference in Tokyo that he instructed the ministry to strengthen its inspections, saying the company’s failure to deal with the defects “is extremely malicious.”

Ministry sources said the inspection period may be further extended if the team finds problems at divisions other than the track maintenance department.

After a freight train derailed last Thursday at Onuma Station on the Hakodate Line, JR Hokkaido said Saturday it had found that failure to repair a track section whose width exceeded the safety limit in a timely fashion could have been a factor in the derailment and that similar problems were found at eight other locations.

On Sunday, the firm said it had found rail defects relating not only to width but also to height and evenness at 97 locations on its railway lines.

The company said all defects have now been repaired.

The inspection team visited JR Hokkaido’s headquarters in Sapporo on Tuesday to interview senior officials of the transport and track maintenance departments. Inspectors are also expected to look into train operations and the rail equipment division that manages rail signals and power cables.

At the site of last Thursday’s accident, the track was found to be 20 mm wider than normal last October and 25 mm wider in June. Although the company’s rules stipulate that a deviation of 19 mm or more must be rectified within 15 days of discovery, it had not undertaken repairs.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, JR Hokkaido reported another incident, this one on the Nemuro Main Line in eastern Hokkaido.

At around 2:15 p.m., the driver of a passenger train found a fuel leak and white smoke rising from under the floor of the one-car diesel train at Shiranuka Station, JR Hokkaido officials said.

The incident happened when the train was about to leave the station after two of its 14 passengers had disembarked. The 12 remaining passengers all left the train immediately. Nobody was injured.

The fuel leak and smoke ceased soon after the driver cut the engine. The train was halted at Shiranuka for an investigation into the cause of the problem.

Eight of the 12 passengers were forced to use taxis to reach their destinations. An oncoming train was delayed by 55 minutes.

JR Hokkaido, which runs a network of roughly 2,500 km of track, has recently seen a series of accidents on its lines, including three train fires between April and July. Another freight train derailment last month is believed to have been caused by heavy rainfall that swept away gravel and soil buttressing track ties.

It is one of the seven Japan Railways group companies created when Japanese National Railways was split up in 1987.