OSAKA — Every day, they are responsible for the safety of millions of lives. Without their services, the nation would, quite literally, come to a standstill. And they are under constant pressure to ensure that one of the world’s most efficient train systems is on time.
They are the train drivers of JR West. From the remote villages in the jagged hills of Fukui Prefecture to the urban jungle of Osaka to the Shimonoseki straits, JR West drivers work nearly all hours, and in all kinds of weather.
Drivers take pride in their jobs, but admit it is extremely high-stress work, with bullying by superiors over mistakes and a lack of psychiatric evaluation or psychological counseling.
The initial requirement for becoming a JR West train driver is simply to be a high-school graduate. But Yoshiharu Miyuki, a train conductor and member of the JR West labor union, says that in recent years the profession has started to attract college graduates.
“About 70 to 80 percent of the drivers are just high school graduates, with the rest having some form of post-high school education,” he says.
To become a JR West train driver involves numerous tests and training procedures. First, you have to pass the general JR West company exam, a written test that consists of general questions. An interview is also mandatory.
New recruits spend their first year working at various JR West stations. They may then apply for the train driver training program.
“They have to pass another written test, which measures their appropriateness for becoming a train driver and they are interviewed. They also have to take a physical examination,” says Toshinori Uehara, a JR West spokesman.
Training then begins at the JR West training center in Suita, Osaka Prefecture. The first four to five months are spent in the classroom, learning the basics and getting tested.
Afterward, on-the-job training begins. Depending on an individual’s ability, Uehara said, this period can last between three and five months.
“On-the-job training involves operating trains with a more experienced driver by your side. The more experienced driver evaluates the performance and can make recommendations for further training, if needed,” said Miyuki.
At this point, if JR West determines the trainee is fit to operate a train, he or she may take the transport ministry-issued test to become a driver.
This involves a series of written tests on basic train operation and startup, as well as safety procedures.
“After passing the ministry’s test, you’re set to operate a train on your own. But, normally, the young and inexperienced are given a local line to operate. With more experience, they are moved up to the express trains,” Miyuki said.
Both Miyuki and Uehara stated that at no point in the training process is there an extensive psychiatric or psychological examination; there are only tests to determine whether a person is “appropriate” to become a train driver.
In the international airline industry, professional psychological evaluations are part of the training and retraining programs. These are done to check for chronic fatigue syndrome and stress.
Uehara said medical tests are given to ensure drivers won’t fall asleep on the job, but that no psychological tests are given to see how the person is dealing with stress.
“JR West views dealing with stress as an individual problem,” said Uehara.
One issue the union has raised with management is bullying. Young, inexperienced drivers are sometimes harassed for months by superiors over small mistakes, Miyuki said.
Since Monday’s train accident, many current and former drivers have also told the media that they have often been harassed. But Uehara said that while some drivers were bullied, JR West did not view this as a serious problem.
“It depends on the individual’s ability to resist,” he said.
Despite the pressures and the salary, which is about 140,000 yen a month for a new recruit, Uehara and Miyuki said competition is fierce to enter the driver training program.
“There’s remains a certain pride in becoming a train driver, and many of the new recruits wish to become either a train driver or an engineer,” said Uehara.
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