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An interim report on the deadly April 25 crash of a speeding commuter train on West Japan Railway Co.’s Fukuchiyama Line touches on the driver’s apparent erratic behavior but leaves many questions unanswered.

The report by the Aircraft and Railway Accidents Investigation Commission probing the derailment in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, was submitted Tuesday to Land, Infrastructure and Transport Minister Kazuo Kitagawa.

Its main conclusion is that speeding on the part of driver Ryujiro Takami, 23, caused the seven-car rapid service train to jump the tracks on a tight, 304-meter-radius curve and slam into a nine-story condominium building, killing himself and 106 passengers and leaving 555 people injured.

Officials of the commission said, however, they still have a long way to go before they can determine precisely why Takami failed to slow for the curve.

“It is difficult to thrash out a solution in terms of the human factor,” Junzo Sato, investigation commission head, told reporters. “The driver is dead and the data recorder could not record his mental state.”

It was widely reported that Takami was speeding to make up for lost time for fear of being punished by JR West, but commission officials claimed they need more time to study the crash from an objective perspective.

In the report, the commission said the rush-hour train was running at more than 110 kph — well above the 70 kph speed limit for that section of track — as it entered the sharp bend.

According to data from the automatic train system, Takami applied the regular brakes only after the train entered the curve, and never activated the emergency brakes. This has baffled experts, because drivers should instinctively sense a speeding danger and apply the brakes accordingly.

Kozo Amano, a professor emeritus majoring in traffic engineering at Kyoto University, said drivers normally should start applying the regular brakes at least 300 to 400 meters before the curve to lower the speed to 70 kph.

“It is conceivable that the driver was in an altered state,” or was unconscious and unable to apply the brakes, Amano said.

The train had overrun the platform at Itami Station, an earlier stop, by 70 meters, prompting speculation that Takami ran faster to make up for the time lost there, which reportedly amounted to 80 seconds.

According to the report, Takami was involved in a 100-meter platform overrun at another station in June 2004.

JR West has been conducting “re-education programs” for drivers who made operating errors.

Unions, however, have branded the programs as punitive activities that put drivers under enormous psychological pressure. The commission said errant drivers sometimes had to weed station grounds or perform other menial or humiliating duties.

The commission has been investigating the re-education programs to find out how they affected Takami’s attitude but has yet to reach a conclusion.

Besides data analysis on how the train traveled, the interim report includes proposals on rail safety measures, mainly to ensure trains do not exceed speed limits.

Proposals by the commission include installing the latest version of the ATS system at curves and junctions that would automatically stop a train before a dangerous situation unfolds, improving train speedometer accuracy and improving radio systems that would alert other trains heading toward a derailment.

Satoru Sone, a transport engineering professor at Kogakuin University, said railways should always prepare for the worst case when they introduce safety measures.

“Humans sometimes do the unthinkable, and railways must try to ensure their safety measures can cover abnormal actions by people,” said Sone, who was asked to become an external board member at JR West in June.

The transport ministry earlier ordered railways nationwide to list sites where installing the new ATS system would improve safety, and it plans to boost its scrutiny of train driver education and testing.

JR West, in a safety report submitted to the ministry in June, promised to install the new ATS at 1,234 sections of track by next March.

After receiving the interim report, transport minister Kitagawa told reporters, “In response to the proposals, we will order railways to make sure train radio systems work properly and will soon investigate the accuracy of train speedometers.”

Commission head Sato said a final report is expected in April 2007.

Report useless: group

OSAKA (Kyodo) Relatives of people killed in the April 25 train crash in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, complained Tuesday that the government’s interim report still doesn’t reveal anything about the cause of the accident.

“It was regrettable that the commission did not analyze the mechanism of the accident,” said Yasakazu Asano of 4/25 Network. “I would like to hear (about the findings) directly from the commission.”

“I think JR (West) does not want to explain about the accident,” Asano said. “When families learn why their relatives died, they can recover their emotions for the first time.”

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