NAGOYA/OSAKA – The crew of a shinkansen train traveling from Fukuoka to Tokyo that was found to have a 16-centimeter crack in its undercarriage reported no abnormalities when handing over operations to the next crew, one of the bullet train operators said Wednesday, even though maintenance staff had said over 90 minutes earlier it should be checked more closely at the next station.
When a crew member of West Japan Railway Co., known as JR West, handed over duties to staff of Central Japan Railway Co., or JR Tokai, at Shin-Osaka Station, he told them there was an unusual smell but no abnormalities, saying that an inspection team on the train had already checked the problem, according to JR Tokai.
JR Tokai operates shinkansen services between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka, while JR West does so between Shin-Osaka and Hakata in Fukuoka Prefecture.
On Tuesday, JR West said the crack found in the shinkansen could have been serious enough to cause a derailment.
“It was an extremely serious incident that has affected trust in the safety of shinkansen,” JR West Vice President Norihiko Yoshie said, referring to what the transport ministry’s accident investigation board has determined to be the first “serious incident” affecting the high-speed train system.
A railway safety expert echoed the concern, saying the steel frame holding the set of wheels, where the crack was found, was “close to breaking apart.”
“If the train had continued running, there was a high possibility of a major accident,” he said.
The crack was found in the undercarriage of the Nozomi 34 train bound for Tokyo from Hakata, Fukuoka Prefecture, after the crew noticed a burning smell and heard an abnormal motor sound on Dec. 11.
The train was halted at Nagoya Station after having run more than three hours with the abnormal smell and noise.
According to JR West, the shinkansen conductor decided together with control center officials in Tokyo to continue running the train based on documented guidance. But it also revealed that JR West’s maintenance staffer who boarded the shinkansen from JR Okayama Station under instructions from the Tokyo center had reported that the train should be checked at one of the next two stations.
The train was scheduled to stop next around 30 minutes later at Shin-Kobe station, after traveling just over 140 kilometers, before stopping again 12 minutes later at Shin-Osaka. Instead it was run for over 90 minutes to Nagoya — a distance of over 366 km.
The shinkansen operator plans to interview those involved in the decision.
“We must take a hard look at ourselves in that we did not stop the shinkansen immediately despite the abnormalities,” Yoshie said, expressing disappointment especially as the company has vowed to make safety its top priority following a 2005 derailment that killed 106 passengers and the driver in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture.
In addition to the 16 cm crack at the bottom of the steel frame, there were 14 cm cracks on both sides of the frame, the company said.
The Japan Transport Safety Board and Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd., which made the train’s undercarriage, are also investigating what caused the incident.
Yoshie said the company had not expected the type of damage discovered in the incident. He said all undercarriages will undergo checks by the end of January.
“The undercarriage is the basis of operating (trains) safely,” said Toyo University professor Haruo Ishii, whose expertise includes companies that offer public services. “If (JR Tokai) conducted the necessary checks and still failed to spot the abnormalities, the checks themselves were flawed.”
Ishii urged the company to revise how they conduct checks through discussions with experts to ensure train safety.
On Dec. 12, the safety board recognized the case as the first “serious incident” affecting the shinkansen system since 2001, when the board’s predecessor organization was established. A serious incident is defined as a situation deemed at risk of causing a potential accident.