Police investigate how fire from burning building spread to an Odakyu train

Odakyu Electric Railway's emergency stop next to fire in Shibuya causes blaze on roof of second carriage, evacuation

Kyodo, Staff Report

Amid questions about whether a train fire in central Tokyo on Sunday could have been avoided, police on Monday were investigating how fire spread to an Odakyu Line train after it came to an emergency stop precariously close to a burning building alongside the tracks.

No one was hurt by the train fire between Sangubashi and Yoyogi-Hachiman stations on the Odawara Line in Shibuya Ward. Some 300 Odakyu Electric Railway Co. passengers were forced to evacuate and about 71,000 people were affected by the delays.

Some experts said the railway, police and firefighters botched their communications and should have told the driver about the fire before he even got near it, and that the train’s close proximity to the building might have been a significant factor.

The roof of the eight-car train, which was heading to Shinjuku Station, caught fire above the second carriage after it made an emergency stop next to a three-story building in Shibuya that was ablaze, the police and the railway said.

The building caught fire at about 4:05 p.m., and a police officer pressed an emergency button at a rail crossing at 4:11 p.m. at the request of firefighters who responded to it.

But when the officer hit the buzzer, it forced a train to automatically stop right next to the building, allowing flames to spread to its roof. The driver reportedly went outside the train to check the situation and noticed the fire on the building and decided to move the train. But he was unaware of the fire on the roof and stopped after about 120 meters after firefighters alerted him.

“It’s regrettable the system caused the train to stop near the site of the fire,” a spokeswoman at Odakyu Electric Railway said by telephone on Monday. She also said the railway still believes pressing the button was the correct response to the situation.

However, she did not deny the possibility the train could have avoided the situation altogether if the driver had instead decided to go to the next station without stopping.

It took about 30 minutes to complete the evacuation after the train made its first emergency stop. Passengers were guided by the crew to leave from both the front and rear cars and then ushered to the nearest rail crossing.

“We’re extremely sorry for causing fear to all the passengers,” the spokeswoman said.

Journalist Jun Umehara, who covers railway issues, said poor communication slowed the evacuation.

“The problem is that the driver had no idea why the train stopped” in the first place, Umehara said by telephone. The slightest mistake could have led to a fire breaking out inside the train, which would have resulted in major damage” and injuries.

He also said the short distance between the tracks and the building might have been a significant factor.

Umehara said that if firefighters or police had explained about the fire and suggested an evacuation earlier, safety risks could have been diminished and the evacuation could have been carried out more smoothly.

According to the railway, the body of the train is made of stainless steel and cannot catch fire. But part of the roof is covered with urethane resin that insulates it from the high-voltage wires overhead. Although fire-retardant material is mixed into it, the resin can still catch fire.

Umehara added the fire could have spread further if the driver had continued to move while it was on fire.

Although no one was injured, some of the passengers looked worried, said Riko Kinefuchi, a 16-year-old high school student who was on the train.

“As the carriage filled with smoke I felt it was getting hot inside,” said 39-year-old Katsumi Tokuyama, an office worker from Setagaya Ward who was in the third carriage. “When I saw the footage later I was surprised to see that the blaze was much more intense than I thought.”

About 25 fire engines were dispatched to the building fire and train blaze. The fires were put out about an hour and 45 minutes after they started.

On Monday, police inspected the site of the fire in an attempt to find the cause. The three-story building houses a boxing gym, and police believe the fire broke out on one of the upper floors, possibly due to a cigarette, based on eyewitness testimony.