Hokkaido Railway Co. (JR Hokkaido) on Sept. 22 announced that it had failed to carry out track repairs quickly enough at 97 spots across Hokkaido. To make matters worse, JR Hokkaido announced three days later that track irregularities were found at an additional 170 spots.

At these 267 spots, tracks had widened beyond the safety limit. In some cases, such tracks were left unrepaired for nearly a year. Although JR Hokkaido said it had finished necessary repairs for the first 97 spots by Sept. 22, it is clear that something is basically wrong with the company.

Earlier this year, the company experienced a series of fire-and-smoke incidents involving limited express trains. One wonders whether officials and employees of JR Hokkaido have a clear sense of duty to protect the lives of passengers.

According to JR Hokkaido’s rule, the width between two rails must be 1,067 millimeters. If the track width becomes 14 or more millimeters wider than the standard in a straight section and 19 or more millimeters wider in a curved section, repairs must be carried out within 15 days. But the company failed to follow this rule at many spots.

Of the 97 spots dealt with by the Sept. 22 announcement, 49 were on main lines, some of which carry limited express trains running at speeds of up to some 130 kph. Forty-eight spots were on sidetracks used to let trains pass each other.

On Sept. 19, a cargo train derailed on the sidetrack at Onuma Station on the Hakodate line. JR Hokkaido admitted that no repairs had been done since October 2012, when track irregularities were found there. The 49 probelm spots on main lines were left unrepaired for one to five months.

Track irregularities included not only wider widths but also nonalignment of rail heights. The investigation of the Sept. 19 derailment by the transport ministry’s Transport Safety Board led to the discovery of many more cases of poor track maintenance.

On Sept. 22, JR Hokkaido President Makoto Nojima said that because priority was given to repairs of main lines, repairs of sidetracks were delayed. He even said that there were cases in which the need for repairs was forgotten.

This explanation fails to answer the question of why repairs of main lines were delayed.

A source said that irregularities of sidetracks were rarely reported to the head office, although the results of track repairs on main lines are reported to the head office.

Clearly JR Hokkaido lacks a system to share information on track irregularities and take action immediately. At the very least, it must increase personnel and budget for track maintenance.

First and foremost, all JR Hokkaido officials and employees must remember and abide by the principle that the safety of passengers comes first. But the latest scandal suggests that it will be extremely difficult for the company to get back people’s trust.

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