Smoke forces evacuation of 120 train passengers below Tsugaru Strait


A train carrying around 120 passengers made an emergency stop Friday in a tunnel linking Hokkaido and Aomori Prefecture after smoke was detected, forcing the evacuation of all aboard, the rail operator and local fire fighters said.

Hokkaido Railway Co. said the six-car express train was forced to stop in the Seikan Tunnel around 1 km from the nearest station at 5:15 p.m. after a conductor saw sparks and smoke coming from beneath the train.

Two women were taken to hospital, one aged 78 and the other in her 50s.

Passengers aboard the train bound for the city of Aomori from Hokkaido walked to Tappi Kaitei Station, some 140 meters below sea level, before being evacuated by railcar.

On the cause of the incident, JR Hokkaido said it appears three cables delivering power to motors overcharged and cable coating was scorched.

JR Hokkaido Vice President Fumihisa Nishino offered an apology at a news conference held early Saturday morning, saying, “We have caused discomfort to all the passengers. We are very sorry.”

The company followed the designated procedure to evacuate passengers, he added.

It is the first time passengers have been evacuated from the 53.8-km-long tunnel since its opening in March 1988, JR Hokkaido said.

The Seikan Tunnel runs under the Tsugaru Strait, linking Shiriuchi in Hokkaido with Imabetsu in Aomori. As a long portion of the tunnel is located below sea level, Tappi Kaitei Station and another station were built for emergency purposes.

A conductor in the second car spotted the smoke, and after the train came to an emergency halt the train driver used a fire extinguisher on the affected part and stopped the smoke, JR Hokkaido said.

It said the train was manufactured in 2002, and no abnormalities were detected before its departure. The operator plans to examine the train to determine the cause of the incident.

JR Hokkaido has come under fire in recent years for a spate of accidents and for falsifying railway inspection data. Its top management was revamped only a year ago in a bid to regain public trust in its operations.