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One month after the April 25 train derailment in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, it is not yet completely clear how and why it occurred, but the government’s investigation committee has kept the public reasonably well informed about its progress even before publishing its report. Its positive attitude toward information disclosure is heartening.

During the past month, the Aircraft and Railway Investigation Committee — which reports to the minister of land, infrastructure and transport — has held more than 10 press conferences to announce its findings. In past probes of this nature, most information was withheld — except during occasional on-site briefings — until an interim or final report was published.

The committee has been forthright. Three days after the accident, which killed 107 people, it effectively rejected an earlier announcement by Western Japan Railway Co. (JR West) that seemed to attribute the derailment to pebbles left on the track by some mischief-maker. The panel believes that the primary cause was excessive speed at a curve.

The need for positive disclosure goes without saying, especially because the accident is the deadliest ever in the history of JR companies. Much to his credit, Land, Infrastructure and Transport Minister Kazuo Kitagawa has provided the leadership for an open investigation.

An interim report, due out in July at the earliest, needs to be compiled under the same principle of openness. In the meantime, information about factors that contributed to the accident as well as facts that may be of help in preventing the recurrence of such accidents, should be published as often as possible. That is the way to meet the wishes of bereaved families and surviving victims who are anxious to know exactly what caused the tragedy.

The committee faces another major challenge: improving its investigative capacity. It was created in 2001 when the Aircraft Accident Investigation Committee (established in 1974) was reorganized to include railway accidents as well. The move followed a disastrous derailment accident on Tokyo’s Hibiya subway line that killed five people.

Of the 10 committee members (including the chair), four are in charge of railway accidents. In the latest accident, though, help from outside experts has been sought to analyze the psychological factors suspected of having led to errors in train operations. While the railway division of the committee does not have a psychologist among its members, the aviation division includes a specialist in aeronautical human engineering.

The committee’s secretariat can call on 31 investigators for expertise — nine for railway accidents and 22 for aircraft. The panel appears to have its hands full, as it is also investigating two other major accidents: the derailment on the Joetsu Shinkansen Line during the Niigata-Chuetsu earthquake last October and the collision involving a Tosa-Kuroshio superexpress train in March. As Transport Minister Kitagawa has pointed out in a TV talk show, it is essential to strengthen the committee’s ability to investigate railway accidents. For that, the investigating staff needs to be expanded.

The reorganized committee conducts a wide range of investigations, involving not only fatal derailment accidents and train fires but also dangerous situations and technical failures short of outright accidents. It also looks into seemingly minor problems that, without adequate precautions, could lead to disaster. All this is reason enough to reinforce the investigation setup.

Organizationally the panel comes under the direction of the transport minister. Yet this should not prevent it from conducting critical checks on public transport policy as well. Certainly the public expects the committee to come up with a candid report that not only details the results of its investigation but also recommends better safety measures.

Ensuring the impartiality of investigative activities is a top priority. In this sense, the view that the committee should be independent of the government, such as the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), merits consideration. The NTSB investigates all kinds of accidents related to transportation — from railway accidents to mishaps involving ships, highways, aircraft, pipelines and toxic materials. On the basis of its findings, the board recommends preventive measures. Additionally, it provides care for victims and their families. It also runs a training academy.

Japan also needs a systematic and comprehensive long-range program to ensure the safety of public transport systems. Experience in the United States can be used as a guide.

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