Acquittal of JR West presidents

The Kobe District Court on Sept. 27 acquitted three former presidents of West Japan Railway Co. (JR West) of the charge of professional negligence in the April 25, 2005, train derailment that killed 106 passengers plus the train driver and injured 562 other passengers, in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture.

The ruling was based on a strict application of the relevant law on the responsibility of specific individuals in a large-scale accident involving public transportation. As former leaders of a railway company, the three should not think that the court acquittal has cleared them of all responsibility for the accident.

The derailment occurred when a train entered a curved section on the Fukuchiyama line at 116 kph; the speed limit was 70 kph. The three former presidents should not forget that if JR West had installed the automatic train stoppage system (ATS) at the scene, it would have been possible to reduce the speed of the train and thus prevent the derailment. The ruling pointed out that installing the system would have been technically and financially easy.

The three presidents — Mr. Masataka Ide, Mr. Shojiro Nanya and Mr. Takeshi Kakiuchi — were not indicted by public prosecutors. Instead, they were indicted by court-appointed lawyers following two rounds of votes by a prosecution inquest committee (11-member citizens’ legal panel). The committee acted after bereaved relatives of the accident victims asked it to examine public prosecutors’ decision not to indict the three men.

Another former JR West president, Mr. Masao Yamazaki, was the top official in charge of train safety at the time of the accident and was indicted in the usual way by public prosecutors. But he has already been acquitted.

The focal point of the trial of the three former presidents was whether they were in a position to foresee a derailment in the curved section, whose radius had been halved from 600 meters to 300 meters, and whether they should have ordered installment of the ATS. The ruling said that since JR West did not specifically discuss the danger of the section, the three did not recognize the danger and were not obliged to install the ATS. It also said that installment of the ATS was not legally required at the time.

It is most regrettable that the ruling did not touch on the corporate culture of JR West. The transport ministry’s now-defunct Aircraft and Railway Accidents Investigation Commission had pointed out that behind the derailment was JR West’s punitive style of “educating” train drivers who ran behind schedule. This included meaningless acts such as writing down the office regulations, cleaning toilets and weeding JR West property.

The commission said that shortly before the Amagasaki accident, the train driver involved had increased the train’s speed to try to make up for a mistake that had cost him time and that he was distracted by worries about being subjected to such “education.”

JR West and other public transportation companies, for that matter, should examine whether their corporate culture enhances or reduces the safety of their operations.