Friday’s bus crash in Nagano Prefecture that killed 14 people and injured 26 others has exposed the pitfalls of small-scale bus tours, the number of which has spiked in recent years due to industry deregulation but whose safety standards are being called into question.
In the country’s worst bus accident in decades, a vehicle carrying 41 people bound for a ski resort plunged off National Route 18 about 2 kilometers south of Karuizawa Station in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, in the early hours of Friday.
All of the 14 casualties aside from the bus’s two drivers — 65-year-old Hiroshi Tsuchiya, who was driving at the time, and 57-year-old Keizo Katsuhara — were college students, local police said.
On Saturday, Nagano Prefectural Police raided the head office of Keith Tour, a travel agency based in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward that arranged the tour. Authorities also raided the Oume, Tokyo, home of Tsuchiya, who was a contract employee for bus operator ESP.
Police have also seized nearly 200 pieces of evidence, including work schedules for ESP’s drivers, during a raid Friday that is part of an investigation into whether there were scheduling and safety-related problems with the firm’s operations.
The bus, which was full, strayed onto the wrong side of the road and plowed through the guard rail. The vehicle was heavily damaged, leaving many passengers trapped, police said.
A range of safety breaches with ESP have come to light, including the fact that the company had not had its drivers undergo mandatory health checkups and that the bus had taken a route it was initially not scheduled to take.
But observers say problems with such bus tour firms are not limited to ESP.
New entrants into the bus tour sector surged after regulations were relaxed in 2000, but not all of them have stuck to the rigorous safety regulations, such as writing out driving routes in advance.
It is required by law that bus operators make detailed plans for every tour, including where drivers will stop to rest and when they will rotate shifts during trips.
ESP was established in 2008 as a security services firm and entered the bus-operating business only in May 2014. Two days before the accident, the firm had been slapped with an administrative order to suspend operations of one of seven vehicles it owns for 20 days for not having its workers undergo the health checkups.
“Deregulation has led to a surge in the number of small-scale operators,” said Seiji Abe, professor of public projects at Kansai University. “I don’t think the problems seen this time are particular to this company.”
He added that government regulators, due to their own manpower shortage, have had a hard time tracking the operations of these new entrants.
Despite a surging demand for affordable bus tours, the number of bus drivers has remained stagnant and, like Japan itself, graying. According to a 2014 report by a panel of experts convened by the transport ministry, the number of bus drivers has remained roughly unchanged at 130,000 over the past decade, though their aging ranks are expected to shrink in the coming years.
“One in six bus drivers is over 60, and the number of their working hours is getting longer, with their average working time reaching 209 hours per month, compared with the average across all industries of 177 hours,” the report said.
Furthermore, the panel’s survey of 35 major bus operators showed that 80 percent of them feel that they either do not currently have enough drivers or foresee a shortage in five years. The drivers are also having a harder time taking holidays and are often roped into overtime work, the report said.
Meanwhile, tour buses bound for ski resorts in Nagano Prefecture were packed Friday night, even after the deadly crash.
At around 9 p.m., a parking lot in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward was crowded with hundreds of snowboard- and suitcase-carrying passengers. Nearly 10 buses departed from the lot, each with around 40 passengers.
One driver of a bus asked passengers to fasten their safety belts, adding that in the wake of the crash, his company had ordered drivers to make sure the safety regulations were followed by all passengers.
One 51-year-old company employee from Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, a ski resort bus tour first-timer, said that while cost was important, he hoped tour operators would prioritize safety.