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The driver of a helper locomotive on a freight train nodded off at the controls on the JR Sanyo Line in Hiroshima Prefecture last month, possibly due to sleep apnea, sources at Japan Freight Railway Co. said Wednesday.

Sleep apnea is also suspected of having caused a West Japan Railway Co. bullet train driver to doze off at the throttle last month on the Sanyo Shinkansen Line.

The bullet train was traveling at nearly 300 kph when the driver dozed for about eight minutes on Feb. 26. An automatic operating system brought the train to a halt.

According to JR Freight, the freight train was traveling eastward when it lost speed at around 8:30 a.m. on Feb. 16 on the Sanyo Line’s Seno-Hachihonmatsu section and ground to a halt.

The 26-year-old driver was in charge of a rear helper locomotive used to push the train up a steep grade. When the driver in the lead locomotive radioed him to find out what was wrong, the man said he was fine and the train got going again, but there was a 25-minute schedule delay.

The driver in question got off the train at Saijo Station, some 12 km from where the train stopped.

He told the carrier he has no memory of the 22 minutes before the train came to a halt and was examined at a hospital in the city of Hiroshima.

He is still undergoing diagnostic tests for sleep apnea, a disorder in which sleep is repeatedly interrupted due to obstructed breathing, preventing deep sleep.

The employee has over five years’ experience driving trains and no record of nodding off before. He is currently barred from the controls, the sources said.

Driver not breathing

Staff report

The transport ministry acknowledged Wednesday that the shinkansen driver who fell asleep at the controls last week was lapsing into the state of non-breathing at the time of the incident, officials said.

Upon receiving the diagnosis from West Japan Railway Co., which runs the bullet train in question, the ministry issued an official notification urging its regional transport bureaus nationwide to recognize such symptoms in a new light and to re-examine past incidents likely to have been caused by the symptom.

The ministry also called on regional transport bureaus to instruct railway operators to take necessary measures to supervise drivers’ health and prevent a recurrence of last week’s incident, which occurred on the Sanyo Shinkansen Line in Okayama Prefecture.

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