The mercury was already testing its upper limit when 83-year-old Kane Moritani left her Yokohama home one morning last summer to visit the neighborhood dentist.

Cane in hand, she struggled across the six-track railway crossing separating her home from her destination.

She never made it to the other side.

The 30-meter-wide Urashima crossing in Yokohama’s Kanagawa Ward

Moritani’s death under the wheels of a Tokyo-bound train shocked residents of Kamezumi, a small community in the city’s Kanagawa Ward, but it did not come entirely as a surprise. It was the latest in a string of similar incidents — eight deaths over the past 15 years — on the Urashima grade crossing, notorious for its daunting length and oft-closed barriers.

“They rarely open, and when they do it’s not for long,” said one elderly Kamezumi resident. “If you don’t hurry, you can’t make it across before the barriers close.”

There are over 32,000 grade crossings in Japan, some 1,600 of which are located in the railway-congested greater Tokyo region. Although similar complaints are probably echoed at many of them, the severity of the problem at Urashima is immediately obvious.

Emergency buttons can be found outside the barriers, while safety sensors line both sides of the crossing to automatically draw the attention of rail operators to vehicles that get stuck on the crossing.

The sensors do not, unfortunately, pick up pedestrians in a similar dilemma.

What’s more, while the number of grade crossings in Japan has been greatly reduced in recent years, especially in the Tokyo area, several demands by Kamezumi residents over the past 15 years to find a safer solution to the Urashima crossing have yielded little.

Recently installed signs, one giving directions to the nearest underground passage, which is 200 meters down the tracks and fitted with user-unfriendly steps, are blasted by Kamezumi residents’ association official Masataka Kariya as “unsubstantial.”

A failure to take suitable steps raises the question of culpability for the eight deaths on the crossing, Kariya said.

“They weren’t knocked down, they were murdered,” Kariya charged. “Sufficient steps have not been taken, so how else can you look at it?”

The Urashima crossing passes over the out- and inbound tracks of three East Japan Railway Co. lines and measures more than 30 meters across. While able-bodied pedestrians can cover the distance in around 35 seconds, elderly residents take an average of 43 seconds to get across, said Iwao Koyama, chairman of the residents’ association.

On weekdays between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., around 160 trains pass over the crossing — averaging one every 45 seconds. The sight of elderly pedestrians scuttling over the crossing and lifting up the barriers as a train whistles past is a common one.

The time between the sounding of a warning bell signaling a train’s approach and its actual passage is set at 46 seconds at the Urashima crossing, a relative luxury compared with the Transport Ministry-imposed national standard of 25 seconds, said Yoshiaki Narieda of JR East’s Yokohama office.

Kariya argued that this figure does not take into account the 18 seconds it takes for the barriers to close, leaving just 28 seconds for pedestrians to cross. Often it is much less, with the barriers barely opening before they close again.

The argument over the interval could have been purely academic. Five years ago, residents submitted a petition to Yokohama officials that an underpass or pedestrian bridge be constructed. The request was also discussed with JR East officials.

JR East’s Narieda said such construction projects brought up a number of complex issues, such as the inevitable use of land neighboring the crossing, which is Yokohama city property.

“This would not be an issue that could be tackled entirely (by JR East),” he said.

And even if a pedestrian bridge or underpass is built, the Urashima crossing would remain for vehicles, he added.

“In which case, (the new structure) might be seen as a kind of ‘long-cut.’ . . . (Pedestrians) would probably just take the quicker option,” he said.

Noriaki Ito of the Yokohama Municipal Government’s construction division echoed this sentiment, adding that in order to pursue such construction, the present crossing would first have to be dismantled, making the idea “impossible.”

Kamezumi is not the only neighborhood suffering from rarely open crossings.

Another serious case can be found in Musashi Koganei near the western Tokyo suburb of Mitaka, where, on weekdays, the crossing on the JR Chuo Line opens for a total of less than 10 minutes between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m.

One local resident complained he sometimes has to wait as long as 20 minutes for the gates to open.

Such complaints to both the railways and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government are not uncommon and are partly behind the recent increase in projects to do away with hundreds of Tokyo’s grade crossings.

Some 220 crossings have been closed as a result of 26 recently completed projects that have rerouted train lines above or below the ground.

A further 10 projects either in progress or due to start in the next few years will rid the area of another 139.

One such project set to commence in western Tokyo in 2002 will put a 2.9-km section of the Keio Line around Chofu in western Tokyo below ground, thus disposing of 18 grade crossings, said Masanori Izuka of the metropolitan road construction section.

The 100 billion yen project, a joint effort between the metropolitan government and Keio Teito Electric Railway Co., aims to solve the chronic traffic congestion caused by those crossings. Between 8 and 9 a.m., many of the crossings are closed for a total of more than 40 minutes, a metropolitan official said.

Not only will this inconvenience be erased, but the new, underground stations will be accessible via elevators and escalators, making “a much more convenient environment for the elderly and the disabled,” Izuka said.

Another such project currently under way to elevate the tracks of the Chuo Line between Tachikawa and Nakano — a stretch that includes 18 grade crossings, including the one outside Musashi-Koganei Station — is scheduled to be completed by 2008.

One Tokyo ward meanwhile has acted decisively to combat a particularly troublesome crossing. In late 1998, Kita Ward constructed a covered bridge over a crossing that rarely opened and was considered dangerous to residents.

It is even equipped with elevators on both sides that no doubt contributed to its staggering 1.1 billion yen construction cost.

According to ward official Hiroshi Arata, it was money well spent. “All of Tokyo is moving toward an aging society. (Such steps) are important for creating a barrier-free environment.”

A solution to the problem in Kamezumi, however, is still unclear, although Koyama and Kariya have already earmarked a now-vacant lot where a pedestrian crossing could be installed.

“They talk about an aging population. There are 330 households (in Kamezumi) and 160 residents are over 65 years old,” Koyama said. “There will be more crossing deaths if the present situation continues.”

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