Smoke and fire on Hokkaido trains

Arecent series of fire-and-smoke incidents involving limited express trains of Hokkaido Railway Co. (JR Hokkaido) has caused concerns to tourists. The company was forced to suspend through the end of August the operation of 36 trains using the same type of diesel engines as used by the trains that experienced the incidents.

This is a serious situation and those incidents may be a harbinger of major accidents. JR Hokkaido must thoroughly check its trains and train operation system and immediately take corrective measures if necessary.

On the morning of July 15, a conductor stopped the eight-car limited express Super Ozora No. 3 on the Chitose Line because he smelled a scorching odor inside the No. 3 car, causing 135 passengers to evacuate. It was found that a fire started in the breaker of a switchboard for air conditioning. An electronic component in a circuit board for the Automatic Train Stoppage system was also found to have burned. It is to protect the circuit against an excessive electric current.

On the afternoon of July 6, a fire broke out from the diesel engine installed under the floor of the No. 4 car of the eight-car limited express Hokuto No. 14 on the Hakodate Line, forcing some 200 passengers to evacuate. A 4-cm-long part inside a fuel pump was found to have broken, thus supplying excessive fuel to the engine. It had been replaced only in April. It was also found that pistons inside the engine had broken and that two of the 12 connecting rods to connect the pistons and cranks had fallen.

These incidents followed a June 11 oil leak found in a limited express on the Sekisho Line. In each month from February to May, a fire or a smoke came from under the floor of a JR Hokkaido limited express train.

These incidents remind people of a more serious JR Hokkaido accident on the night of May 27, 2011, when the limited express Super Ozora No. 14 derailed and all of its six cars burned inside a tunnel on the Sekisho Line, injuring 79 people.

A crew of four and 248 passengers were in the train. Naotoshi Nakajima, then JR Hokkaido president, killed himself in September 2011 over the accident.

After this accident, JR Hokkaido worked out a basic safety plan which included a ¥130 billion equipment investment over 10 years. But it suffered 193 “transportation disorders” — delays of 30 minutes or longer and suspension of train operations — in fiscal 2012, a record in the latest 10 years. The number of transportation disorders for every 1 million kilometers covered by trains was 3.54 in fiscal 2011, about two to three times more than the corresponding figures of 1.02 to 1.69 for other JR companies.

JR Hokkaido and the government’s Transport Safety Board must decide what measures must be taken by closely examining the recent incidents. JR Hokkaido must examine whether it has an adequate system to report all irregularities, small and large, and share the information to ensure safety. It also must see whether its rationalization efforts have not weakened its human resources for safety maintenance.

Fears of accidents will not only affect JR Hokkaido but also damage tourism in Hokkaido, an important industry of the region.