Monday’s railway accident in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, was the worst since Japanese National Railways was privatized in 1987. A packed seven-car commuter train jumped the tracks at a sharp curve and the front car slammed into the parking floor of a nearby apartment building, killing more than 100 people and injuring over 450. The death toll exceeded that of a 1991 accident in Shigaraki, western Japan, which killed 42 people.

As of midafternoon Thursday, 106 people were confirmed dead. The death toll topped 100 after rescuers gained access to a crumpled portion of the first car and found the bodies of seven more people, including the driver. Government investigators, the police and JR engineers are working together to pinpoint the cause of the accident.

It is probably premature to conclude that the accident was caused entirely by error on the part of the driver and other operating personnel. All possible factors must be examined, including train operation, control mechanisms, structure of the train cars, maintenance and geography.

One discovery mentioned earlier as a possible clue to the derailment was rail marks from what might have been stones crushed by the passing train. West Japan Railway Co. (JR West) believes, however, that the marks were made by pebbles disturbed by the train’s speeding wheels. One fact is clear, though: The train was behind schedule — a fact that raises suspicion that speed may have played a role in the accident. This theory is supported by an analysis of records registered by a speed monitoring device. Those records show that the train was traveling at more than 100 kph. The maximum speed limit at the sharp curve is 70 kph.

The train had overshot the stop line at the previous station, causing it to fall about 90 seconds behind schedule by the time it backed up and opened its doors. Punctuality is a hallmark of Japanese trains. Some passengers have stated the seven-car train was running much faster than usual just before the accident, as if to make up for the delay. Possibly the driver was under heavy pressure to stay on schedule, putting service before safety. A review of in-house education at JR West seems in order.

Even if the driver is found guilty of professional negligence the company cannot escape blame, as ensuring the safety of passengers is the foremost duty of mass transit systems. Human errors, even if proven, do not reduce, let alone obviate, the need to redouble efforts to prevent accidents.

One way to prevent a derailment would be to upgrade the automatic braking system. Such a system was installed near the accident site, but it was said to be so antiquated that it did not work even when a train passed by at excessive speed.

Another problem seems to the structure of the train cars, which are made of lightweight stainless steel. While lighter trains can travel faster, they are more vulnerable to physical shocks, provide less impact protection and make rescue work more difficult.

Yet another problem is the absence of guard rails designed to prevent derailments. Obviously the lesson of the March 2000 Tokyo subway collision, also caused by derailment, has not been learned. The need for guard rails was also voiced following last October’s Shinkansen derailment during the Chuetsu earthquake in Niigata Prefecture.

A review of maintenance policy also seems in order, considering that JR management has reduced the number of personnel in charge of rail repairs and inspection through outsourcing and other cost-cutting measures. JR companies say they have tried to improve safety through mechanization and automation, yet investment for maintenance and inspection should not be curtailed in the name of shoring up business foundations.

Geography was also a factor in the tragedy. The apartment building the train smashed into was just six meters from the tracks. The question is: What can be done to prevent the construction of buildings near railways? That won’t be easy in this crowded country, but halting the construction of apartments near sharp railway curves in urban areas might be a good start.

The transport ministry has its work cut out in investigating the cause of the accident, as does the Hyogo Prefectural Police department, which is probing the criminality of those involved. The driver and other on-site operators are suspected of professional negligence resulting in death and injury.

In the past, top executives of railway companies have been rarely held criminally responsible for accidents. To prevent recurrences once and for all, however, it will be necessary to conduct a full investigation of all involved, including executives at the highest levels of management.

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