National

JR East efforts that prevented shinkansen crash deaths in 2004 are lesson to others, expert says

JIJI

An expert has praised East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) for preventing a shinkansen train from crashing during a powerful earthquake 15 years ago even though the train derailed.

After the first derailment accident involving a shinkansen train in commercial operations, some voiced criticism, saying that “the safety myth” of the highly acclaimed bullet train system had collapsed.

But Yotaro Hatamura, 78, honorary professor at the University of Tokyo, has rebutted that view. Before the temblor, JR East voluntarily carried out work to reinforce the rail section in question against earthquakes. No one was killed or injured in the accident thanks to “a combination of the company’s honest efforts and good luck,” said Hatamura, who independently investigated the accident site at the time.

The 6.8 magnitude earthquake occurred on the afternoon of Oct. 23, 2004, mainly affecting the Chuetsu region of Niigata Prefecture. Jolted by the temblor, the Toki No. 325 train on JR East’s Joetsu Shinkansen line, which connects Tokyo Station and Niigata Station, derailed while it was traveling on elevated tracks between Urasa and Nagaoka stations, both in Niigata Prefecture, at a speed of about 200 kilometers per hour.

But the train avoided a crash, as the elevated section did not collapse and the rails became stuck between the wheels of the train and parts on its body. All 154 passengers and crew members were safe.

The quake registered up to 7 on the Japanese earthquake intensity scale, the highest reading, and killed nearly 70 people and injured some 4,800 others.

After the January 1995 earthquake in Kobe and surrounding areas, which also measured up to 7 and left more than 6,400 people dead or missing and some 43,000 others injured, the government instructed JR East and other Japan Railways Group companies to reinforce their facilities located in areas where large-scale earthquakes might strike.

The Chuetsu region was not included in the potential quake-prone areas. But JR East independently inspected an active fault located near the Joetsu Shinkansen line tracks running in the region.

JR East then worked out a plan to reinforce about 3,000 piers for elevated tracks in areas designated by the state and selected on its own that might collapse during earthquakes, according to Hatamura and others. Among the reinforced sections was the site of the derailment. JR East completed the work by the end of March 1999.

“If the elevated tracks had collapsed, the shinkansen train would have crashed, probably killing all aboard instantly,” Hatamura said. “We can save lives if we utilize all the knowledge we have, estimate what will happen and create plans and put them into action.”

Hatamura also headed a government panel to investigate the March 2011 triple meltdown at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s tsunami-stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture.

“Ultimately, what people working in an organization value, not technical matters, will become an issue. The Tepco management team did nothing (to protect the nuclear plant from tsunami), without trusting data (that predicted huge tsunami hitting the plant in the event of a powerful earthquake).”

In addition, Hatamura complained that once an accident happens in Japan, more weight is placed on pursuing individuals’ responsibility than on efforts to get to the bottom of the incident.

In the United States, the responsibility of individuals is not questioned in principle, in order to make it easier for people involved in accidents to speak about them to help figure out the truth of the incident.

Hatamura said that Japan “must change its current system and way of thinking,” indicating it is meaningless to get into conflict over whether somebody should be accused of an accident.

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