No way to run a railway

The Hokkaido police last week launched an investigation against Hokkaido Railway Co. (JR Hokkaido) on suspicion that its workers fabricated track maintenance data. The investigation concerns the suspected falsification of data on track gauge widths in the Onuma Station compound on the Hakodate line after a freight train derailed there Sept. 19. It is suspected that falsifying data after the derailment was aimed at obstructing the accident investigation by the transport ministry and the Japan Transport Safety Board. All employees found to be involved should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

The data falsification was aimed at making the measurements acceptable to the ministry and to the board. It has been found that track gauge widths at the derailment site were up to 37 mm wider than the standard — about twice the allowable margin.

This incident is only one of many cases of irregularities related to JR Hokkaido’s track maintenance. The transport ministry said on Oct. 4 that JR Hokkaido failed to carry out repairs at 270 spots where irregularities had been found in gauge widths.

The Hokkaido police investigation was launched following an accusation leveled by the ministry and the board — an unprecedented move by the two entities. The police must carry out a thorough investigation with JR Hokkaido’s full cooperation. Determining whether JR Hokkaido officials and workers are criminally responsible will be an indispensable step toward rectifying the company’s corporate culture, which is suspected of having a lax attitude toward train operation safety.

The Hokkaido police should also determine whether there was a collusive relationship between Hokkaido JR officials and workers that led to the irregularities in track maintenance.

On Jan. 21, JR Hokkaido announced that gauge-width data had been falsified at 33 of the companies’ 44 track maintenance sections, and 129 workers were involved in the deception. This would suggest that 16 percent of JR Hokkaido’s track maintenance workers fabricated data. Of the 75 workers and officials whom the company disciplined, five were dismissed. President Makoto Nojima and other executives will stay on.

Last Friday, it was reported that shortly after JR Hokkaido set up a countermeasures headquarters at the Onuma track maintenance office following the Sept. 19 derailment, two JR Hokkaido workers in the very same room falsified gauge-width data related to the accident. The derailment occurred around 6:05 p.m. and the data falsification started around 8 p.m. The workers were later fired.

These findings underline just how slack JR Hokkaido has been in matters related to train operation safety and that the practice of data falsification has spread through much of the company. They also point to the possibility that JR Hokkaido officials either tacitly accepted or issued instructions for falsification of data. The police investigation must determine which JR employees were involved in the data falsification, and these people must be held accountable for their actions. It will also be necessary to bring in experienced train operation employees from outside to help run the company.

While there can be no excuse for falsifying data related to safe train operations, JR Hokkaido’s financial difficulties likely prompted the workers to take safety shortcuts. With this in mind, the government, the sole shareholder in the company, should consider how it can help the firm to improve its financial condition.