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The transport ministry said Thursday it is considering administrative penalties against West Japan Railway Co. over an incident in which a driver fell asleep at the helm of a bullet train.

Police meanwhile are investigating the case on suspicion of professional negligence and are questioning the driver and other people involved.

“We are considering taking measures against JR West, such as issuing a warning or punishing the driver,” said Toshiki Aoyama, vice minister of land, infrastructure and transport. “(JR West) must enforce all-out measures for supervising (drivers’) health, checking the way the roll call (is conducted) and the state of (drivers’) mind.”

On Wednesday afternoon, the 33-year-old driver of the Hikari No. 126 bullet train on the Sanyo Shinkansen Line nodded off for eight minutes until he was woken up by a conductor after the train pulled into Okayama Station. The train originated in Hiroshima and was bound for Tokyo.

Running at speeds of up to 270 km per hour, the train covered a distance of 26 km while the driver was in the land of Nod.

Officials were alerted when the train pulled in to the station at 3:20 p.m. and came to a halt 90 meters short of its designated stopping point with the help of a system that automatically regulates the speed of a train.

Speaking to reporters at the Diet, transport minister Chikage Ogi called the accident outrageous. “I initially thought the driver was ill, but I was surprised to hear that he had merely dozed off,” she said.

According to vice minister Aoyama, JR West said the driver had been drinking alcohol until shortly before going to bed at 1 a.m. the night before the incident. The driver, who reportedly has high blood pressure, woke up at 11 a.m. on Wednesday.

The vice minister said the main priority is to thoroughly investigate the cause of the accident and make sure it does not happen again.

JR West told the ministry that its head office has issued a five-point guideline meant to prevent such incidents. It will have two drivers on duty on each of its bullet trains for the coming month, Aoyama said.

Mitsuhito Hashimoto, chief of JR West’s transport division, denied that the driver was made to work excessively tough shifts.

“(The fact that he dozed off) is more the driver’s individual problem than our systematic problem,” Hashimoto told a news conference in Osaka.

According to Hashimoto, the average train driver at JR West works four days on and two days off. The driver of Hikari No. 126 has been working such a shift for the past year, he said.

The driver apparently does not suffer any particular health problem, but JR West will investigate whether he has physical or psychological troubles, Hashimoto said.

“He will not be allowed to drive trains at least for the time being, and depending on the outcome of further investigation, he may not be able to drive trains (in the future),” he said.

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