Track defects grow to 260 at JR Hokkaido

Railway rushes to patch track problems that date back to '85

Kyodo, JIJI

Hokkaido Railway Co. said Wednesday it has found 170 more unaddressed track defects, bringing to 267 the total uncovered by an investigation into a derailment last week.

The new defects may include some that have been there since 1985, when changes were made to the maintenance rules drafted by the Japan National Railways following its privatization.

JR Hokkaido said all of the defects, including the newly disclosed ones, had been repaired by Wednesday morning.

In the meantime, Norihiro Goto, chairman of the Japan Transport Safety Board, said his inspectors found the tracks at the site of the last Thursday’s freight train derailment were as much as 37 mm wider than normal, compared with 25 mm in June.

But he also said the board couldn’t determine whether the new deviation, which is almost double the allowable limit of 19 mm, was caused by the derailment.

In June, the track was found up to 25 mm wider than normal. Although the railway’s rules stipulate that a deviation of 19 mm or more must be rectified within 15 days of discovery, it had not undertaken repairs.

The board has also been investigating four derailments on JR Hokkaido lines that took place between February 2012 and August this year.

Goto said it is not known if there is any link between the four earlier accidents and the rail defects.

The transport ministry meanwhile bolstered its inspection team by 20 officials from nine.

JR Hokkaido said it found the new defects after going over the report it filed with the transport ministry on Sunday, which said it found defects relating not only to rail width but also to height and evenness at 97 locations.

JR Hokkaido customers expressed anger Wednesday over the track repair debacle.

“I was stunned this morning to hear that they found more defects. I don’t understand why they couldn’t find them until now. What have the president and executives of this company doing all this time?” said Mariko Mitsuyoshi, 78, a resident of Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, who was visiting Hakodate with a friend.

A 53-year-old woman who runs a souvenir shop in front of JR Hakodate Station said the railway has been sloppy.

“I wonder if they realize that leaving a situation like this could lead to a major accident and loss of lives,” she said.

On Tuesday, the ministry 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.

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

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

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

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 after two of its 14 passengers had disembarked. The remaining 12 left the train immediately. Nobody was injured.

  • Jeffrey

    I’m sure the nation of the 2020 Summer Games can get these fixed right away in the same “can do” fashion as the clean-up and rebuilding in Tohoku. Say what?

    Oh, never mind.

    • Steve Novosel

      JR Hokkaido is a private company. They have nothing to do with either the Olympics or Tohoku reconstruction.

      • Jeffrey

        All former JR entities still run as semi-joint ventures with the central government who is still in charge of inspection and safety, something the central government doesn’t do very much of anymore.

        “By 2006, all of the shares of JR East, JR Central and JR West had been offered to the market and they are now publicly traded. On the other hand, all of the shares of JR Hokkaido, JR Shikoku, JR Kyushu and JR Freight are still owned by Japan Railway Construction, Transport and Technology Agency, an independent administrative institution of the state.”

  • George Polley

    One does wonder what the executives of JR Hokkaido have been doing all these past months, with this disaster-in-waiting following a string of equipment failures (fires), plus one incident where the driver of a train speeding toward the airport at Chitose was observed sound asleep. Fortunately a passenger saw him and intervened. Yet these problems persist? Looks to me like the corporate culture has become dysfunctional and needs shaking up.