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The safety of public transport in Japan has been thrown into doubt by the April 25 train derailment in Hyogo Prefecture, which killed 107 people and injured 460, and by a succession of other transport-related incidents that have followed — including train overruns, a bus accident, errors by air traffic controllers and an emergency descent by a jumbo jet.

Public anxiety must be removed at all costs. First, public transport companies, particularly railway operators, should conduct all-out safety checks immediately, as requested by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, and publish all inspection results. They should also map out drastic plans to ensure safety, then implement them without delay.

Transport Minister Kazuo Kitagawa has said he will order all railway companies to install a new, advanced automatic train stop (ATS) system to prevent derailments. The statement, while welcome, seems overdue. The tragedy in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, could have been prevented had the ministry issued the order earlier. Railway companies, particularly West Japan Railway Co. (JR West), which is directly responsible for the accident, should introduce the system as soon as possible.

The installation of the new ATS system requires a huge capital outlay — about 46 million yen per kilometer, according to East Japan Railway Co. (JR East). While the cost should be paid primarily by operators, investment in safety systems will necessitate government support, such as tax breaks and direct subsidies. Raising train fares is not a sensible option at this stage.

The first thing to do, for both JR and non-JR companies, is to spell out a clear-cut policy that puts safety before profit. Without such an unequivocal commitment, not only passengers but also rail-side residents will not accept future fare increases.

This is especially true for JR West. Indeed, nothing is more important than regaining public confidence. Its corporate image has been badly tarnished not only by the worst accident in JR history but also by morally questionable behavior on the part of some employees, including those who continued bowling, golfing and partying on the tragic day.

The company must first win the hearts of bereaved families and surviving victims. It must show its sincerity not only in words but also in deeds by providing support for mental health care and paying compensation. It must also disclose all information related to the accident, including details it might have wanted to keep confidential.

The derailment is attributed to a combination of factors, although to what extent each contributed, directly or indirectly, remains less than clear pending investigations by the Hyogo Prefectural Police and the transport ministry. The most direct cause, according to investigators, is excessive speed. The train jumped the tracks, they believe, as it turned a sharp curve at more than 120 kph, far exceeding the set limit of 70 kph.

As for indirect causes, the prevailing view is that the absence of the new ATS system and guard rails, extremely tight train schedules, and some elements of a disciplinary reorientation program for “underperforming” drivers all contributed to the accident. The “re-education” program is said to have put too much pressure on those drivers.

Other factors are believed to have increased the level of damage. These include the lightweight, stainless-steel structure of the train cars, which made them vulnerable particularly to sideway shocks, and the proximity of the railside apartment building into which the train crashed. Experts are calling for measures to reduce damage, not just prevent accidents.

As for who is criminally responsible for the accident, the focal question is whether Hyogo police can bring charges of professional negligence against those in charge of operations and driver education — more specifically, whether the disaster would have been prevented if those supervisors had taken precautionary measures. It would be unfair to blame only the driver, who died in the crash.

The ministry’s investigation committee, meanwhile, is to submit a report on the causes of the accident and on measures to prevent recurrences. With bereaved families and surviving victims anxious to know why it happened, the sooner an interim report is released the better.

In addition, the committee should investigate all relevant aspects of railway administration and propose new preventive measures, if necessary. In particular, it should conduct a critical review of the ministry’s safety policies, regulations and standards.

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