The operator of a chartered bus that crashed in Nagano Prefecture early on Friday, killing 14 people, provided the service far more cheaply than the state-stipulated minimum, as proposed by a travel company, transport ministry sources said Sunday.
Tokyo-based ESP operated the bus for a ski tour organized by the travel company, Keyth Tour, for ¥190,000, or ¥80,000 lower than the minimum standard price set by the transport ministry to prevent price competition from undermining safety.
The ministry is considering punishing ESP for violating the Road Transportation Law.
According to the sources, when Tokyo-based Keyth Tour asked an intermediary company to find a bus to take its customers to a ski resort in northern Nagano Prefecture, the firm said it wanted to keep “transport costs low for the time being” because customers were scarce amid the light snowfall this year, according to the sources.
“If more snow falls and customers increase, we will raise fares,” Keyth Tour was quoted as telling the intermediary company, Tokyo-based Travel Stand Japan Inc.
The intermediary company was aware that the proposed cost was lower than the minimum standard but still conveyed the proposal to ESP, they said.
An ESP official told reporters Sunday that the bus operator had failed to check whether the proposal met the standard. “We are sorry for that,” he said.
ESP President Misaku Takahashi admitted separately that the company had managed its business in an “immature and lax” manner, saying it will stop operating large buses.
The transport ministry, which is inspecting ESP, has also found there was at least two previous cases in which ESP operated a bus at a price lower than the state-stipulated minimum. The ministry is investigating whether there have been further violations of the standard.
The ministry has restricted price-cutting in the bus industry since safety problems came to light in the wake of a 2012 tour bus accident in Gunma Prefecture that killed seven passengers.
The minimum price is set based on the distance and duration of a tour, but an industry source said the restriction is often neglected in practice.
“A (bus) company cannot refuse if a travel company, which is in a superior position, proposes (a cheaper) price,” the source said.
ESP has denied it downplayed passenger safety by providing its services at lower cost.
ESP was established as a security company in 2008 and was given permission to operate chartered buses from 2014.
Last year, ESP falsely reported to the ministry that it had conducted health checks on its bus drivers. One of the two drivers on the bus that crashed Friday may have been among them.
In the accident early Friday, 12 university students were killed and 27 other passengers injured when the bus carrying 39 passengers from Tokyo to a ski resort veered off a mountain road and rolled over near the resort town of Karuizawa, about 130 km (80 miles) northwest of Tokyo.
The two drivers operating the overnight bus also died.
Police initially said one of the passengers was not injured but corrected the announcement Sunday, saying a 19-year-old university student had also broken his arm.
Two people remain in critical condition, while 16 were severely injured and nine others sustained light injuries.