Bullet trains get rude wake-up call

by Mari Yamaguchi


A fatal shinkansen fire started by a man who burned himself to death Tuesday has revealed blind spots in a system renowned for its speed, punctuality and safety record.

Riding a bullet train feels like being in an airplane — it goes so fast in and out of tunnels that it must be airtight. Windows cannot be opened, and doors open only when the train stops, which takes several minutes.

Yet in a country with strict gun control and a low crime rate, security is lax — no identification or baggage checks are required.

On Tuesday, Haruo Hayashizaki, a 71-year-old retiree, poured gasoline over himself and ignited it while riding a bullet train to Osaka from Tokyo. He died on the spot, while smoke filled the coach and choked a female passenger to death.

It was the first fire in the shinkansen system’s 50-year history. Experts say it was a wake-up call for something more disastrous, potentially a terrorist attack, and that it is time to step up risk management ahead of the Group of Seven summit in Mie Prefecture next year and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“The incident took advantage of the blind spots on the shinkansen,” said Seiji Abe, an expert on transportation safety at Kansai University in Osaka. “Fire caused by malicious intentions was not anticipated, and provisions to keep out hazardous materials were not in place.”

Authorities haven’t found any mishandling by the train’s operator, but the initial investigation and witness accounts have raised questions, including how quickly crew members grasped the situation and whether there should be a better way to clear smoke from the hermetically sealed cars.

A passenger pushed an emergency button, but unlike some newer models, this train was not equipped with an emergency intercom, said Tomoyuki Sano, a spokesman for Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai), which operates the Tokyo-Osaka segment of the line. That means crew members knew something had happened in the area where the button was pressed but were most likely unaware it was a fire until they arrived at the scene.

In a standard emergency procedure, the overhead electric power was cut off for a 20-km stretch to keep the tracks clear for police and rescue workers, but this also shut off the train’s ventilation system.

Satoru Sone, an expert on railway safety at Kogakuin University in Tokyo, said the power should never be turned off because ventilation is crucial to getting smoke out. He also said that emergency button systems with intercoms should be installed on trains lacking them.

“In Japan, everyone is so complacent about safety while on a train, unlike overseas,” he said, noting that trains elsewhere have been targeted by terrorists and are often less reliable, so smoke resulting from mechanical troubles is not uncommon.

While Japan strives to keep its bullet trains in perfect condition, reducing the risk of arson was little anticipated.

A 1964 law on violations related to bullet train safety doesn’t mention arson. Even today, inflammable ceilings and fire-retardant seats on the train are mainly intended to prevent fire caused by glitches, experts say.

“The system is based on the view of human nature as fundamentally good, which I think is universal,” Abe said. “Unfortunately, in every society there are some people who do evil, and it is extremely important to take precautions to stop these people.”

Police haven’t officially determined the motive, though media quoted neighbors as saying Hayashizaki had repeatedly complained that his pension was barely enough to live on.

Transport officials met with bullet train operators after the fire to seek ways to tighten security without affecting the efficiency of the trains.

Experts say airport-level luggage checks are impractical for the high-speed line, which launches runs every few minutes during busy hours. Instead, they say increased police patrols and random baggage checks could be more effective.

Baggage checks for high-speed train passengers are also not required in Germany, France, Taiwan and South Korea. The Eurostar connecting Britain to Brussels and Paris requires a passport and luggage checks, and China has X-ray checks on subways.

The Tokyo-Osaka leg, the most popular segment of the bullet train network, with 420,000 passengers every day, is part of a system spanning most of Japan.

“All these years we were worried but haven’t been able to find effective precautionary measures,” Sone said. “Now that the accident happened, it’s time to take action.”