Commuters on Japan’s admirable network of trains and subways have always had to keep an eye out for people running down stairs and leaping on the train. Now they also must look out for people pulling bags on wheels, listening to music players and checking e-mail on cell phones. However, according to recent statistics from the transport ministry, drunks are the No. 1 hazard.

During the first half of the 2010 fiscal year (April to September), there were 117 major injuries and deaths due to falls from train platforms or being struck by trains, and of these roughly 60 percent involved drunkenness. One particularly tragic case occurred at Shinjuku station last August during the evening rush hour when a tipsy man stumbled into the line waiting for an express train, causing a 77-year-old university president — the eldest son of the famous novelist Haruo Sato (1892-1964) — to be knocked off the platform and dragged along by the incoming train; he died of head injuries.

In response, train and subway lines have largely succeeded in providing crawl spaces under platforms and panic buttons on platforms to stop trains in an emergency. Nevertheless, they are far behind in installing the most effective safety measure: barriers with sliding doors that open only when the train is stopped at the platform. As of the end of March 2010, they were present at only 449 stations out of the 2,800 in the nation deemed to need them.

Why the delay? Technical problems include the need to strengthen the foundations of older stations and to cope with train cars of differing lengths and configurations for doors, especially at stations serving more than one train or subway line. The major obstacle is cost.

Installation of safety barriers costs at least ¥300 million per station. JR East’s plan to install them at all 29 Yamanote Line stations in Tokyo by the spring of 2018 will take about ¥50 billion. (On Jan. 16, a blind man — a well-known promoter of “blind tennis” — fell from the Mejiro Station platform and was killed by a Yamanote train.) Such expenditures are beyond the reach of private lines without aid, yet governmental subsidies are unlikely in the current environment. Thus train riders will have to remain vigilant for some time to come, especially on Friday nights.

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