OSAKA — At least 71 people died and 441 others were injured Monday when five cars of a seven-car train derailed, sending two cars slamming into an apartment building in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, police and firefighters said.
The accident occurred at around 9:20 a.m. near a railway crossing between Amagasaki and Tsukaguchi stations on West Japan Railway Co.’s Fukuchiyama Line.
The first and second cars of the train crashed into the ground floor of the nine-story apartment building about 6 meters from the curved tracks and were destroyed.
As of Monday evening, rescuers were trying to free at least four people still alive in the wreckage. Rescue work continued through the night.
Hundreds of injured people were taken to nearby hospitals, police said.
Government and JR West officials said they were trying to determine the cause of the accident. Several passengers said they thought the train was going too fast.
The number of deaths surpassed the 42 people who died in a 1991 head-on train collision in Shiga Prefecture.
JR West said it found grinding marks on the tracks often left behind when a train runs over objects such as stones, but added they had not confirmed any causal relationship between the marks and the accident.
The 23-year-old driver, who had been on the job for 11 months, overshot a station stop in June last year by 100 meters, JR West said. He was still missing in the wreckage as of Monday evening.
The 42-year-old conductor on the train was interviewed by police, JR West officials said.
JR West President Takeshi Kakiuchi apologized for the accident. “As a railway operator, I am filled with a very sorry feeling,” he said at a news conference in Osaka.
At a separate news conference in the evening, the railway operator said the accident led to the cancellation of 280 train runs, affecting 120,000 passengers.
In response to requests by the Hyogo Prefectural Government, a Ground Self-Defense Force unit in the prefecture sent personnel to help with rescue operations, while nearby municipalities such as Osaka and Kobe sent firefighters to provide emergency aid.
The train, with about 580 people on board, was heading from Takarazuka Station in Hyogo Prefecture to Doshishamae Station in Kyoto Prefecture. The speed limit at the accident site was 70 kph, but it is not known how fast the train was going when the accident occurred, JR West officials said.
The automatic train stop used in the area is the oldest model available and does not have the capability to trigger automatic braking when trains go by too quickly, the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry said.
At Itami Station, the train’s last stop before crashing, the driver overran the stop mark by about 8 meters and had to back up before the passengers could be let off, a JR West official said. The train then left the station about 90 seconds behind schedule and passed Tsukaguchi Station about one minute late, he said.
The conductor was reporting to the command room about the overrun at Itami Station by radio and mobile phone when the accident occurred, JR West said. “We just had a derailment accident,” the conductor said through the phone, the company said.
Many of the injured said the train seemed to be traveling faster than usual after leaving Itami Station, as if the driver was hurrying to make up for the delay.
JR West sources suggested the train may have exceeding the speed limit and likely failed to negotiate the curve.
Based on calculations, a train going by the accident site would derail if it were moving at 133 kph or more, JR West officials said. The train was designed to move at a maximum speed of 120 kph, they said.
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