JR Hokkaido in crisis

On the night of May 27, 2011, the limited express Super Ozora No. 14 derailed and all of its six cars caught fire inside a tunnel on the Sekisho Line of Hokkaido Railway Co. (JR Hokkaido). A crew of four and 248 passengers were on the train and 79 people were injured. JR Hokkaido President Naotoshi Nakajima committed suicide in September that year over the accident.

It was expected that JR Hokkaido would improve the safety of its train operations following this serious accident, but this did not happen. Instead, the situation appears to be going from bad to worse. In July, a series of fire-and-smoke incidents involving JR Hokkaido limited express trains ensued, causing concerns to tourists. The company was forced to suspend through the end of August the operation of 36 trains using the same type of diesel engines found in the trains that experienced the fire-and-smoke incidents.

Irregularities involving JR Hokkaido did not stop there. On Nov. 11, suspicions arose that data concerning railway gauges had been fabricated. The transport ministry later confirmed that the fabrication had taken place. This is a serious problem that concerns the fundamentals of safe train operations. Irregular rail track conditions can cause derailments, which can result in injuries and death. JR Hokkaido workers who fabricated the data and officials who failed to detect the fabrication must realize that they have been involved in criminal activity related to railway safety.

While it may be tempting for JR Hokkaido’s management or labor unions to blame factors such as a lack of funds, the nature of the incidents suggest that JR Hokkaido is facing a crisis of ethics. JR Hokkaido’s management and labor unions should take necessary measures to alter the railway company’s corporate culture so that it can regain the trust of its customers. They must not forget that JR Hokkaido provides an indispensable means of transportation not only for the residents of Japan’s northernmost main island, but also for tourists. Japan’s northernmost main island can ill afford to have its important tourist industry damaged by JR Hokkaido’s actions.

The origin of the latest irregularities dates back to Sept. 19 when a cargo train derailed in the compounds of Onuma Station on the Hakodate line. JR Hokkaido announced on Sept. 21 that it had failed to repair rail track irregularities at nine spots, including the spot where the derailment took place.

This triggered a special safety inspection by the transport ministry. The company announced the next day that it had failed to carry out track repairs at 97 spots across Hokkaido. To make matters worse, JR Hokkaido announced three days later that it had failed to carry out repairs at an additional 170 spots. The transport ministry said on Oct. 4 that the actual number of rail track spots where repairs had not been carried out was 270. It held a second special safety inspection from Oct. 9 to 12.

The irregularities included gauge widths becoming wider than the safety standard, poor alignment in the height between rails and ragged rail surfaces. The crux of the matter is that JR Hokkaido did not carry out repairs within the time-frame established in its rules. Shortly after the irregularities were disclosed, JR Hokkaido announced that it had completed the repairs. Given the dangers presented by the irregularities, it is nothing short of criminal that the railway company had deliberately failed to repair them for such a long period of time.

In an announcement that further deepened the public’s distrust, JR Hokkaido announced on Oct. 28 that it had failed to carry out examinations at some 2,100 rail switches, where trains shift from one track to another.

Another serious matter surfaced on Nov. 11 when JR Hokkaido announced that an outside whistleblower had informed it that a rail track maintenance section fabricated data on rail tracks and sent the fabricated data to the company’s headquarters. Two days later, Kyodo News found that several workers at the Hakodate rail track maintenance section, whose jurisdiction includes Onuma Station, had admitted that they had falsified rail track data.

The transport ministry said on Nov. 19 that about a half of the workers at the Hakodate section admitted that they had falsified data on gauge widths to make the figures acceptable. At the spot in the compounds of Onuma Station where the cargo train derailed, the gauge widths were found to be up to 37 mm wider than the standard — about twice the allowable margin.

On Nov. 22, JR Hokkaido President Makoto Nojima admitted that similar fabrications were found at eight more rail track maintenance sections and listed manpower shortages and an increase in unskilled workers as factors. Previously it had been discovered that some rail track maintenance sections had discarded the notebooks containing the original rail track data. Since JR Hokkaido has a total of 44 rail track maintenance sections, the possibility cannot be ruled out that the data fabrication scandal will grow. On Nov. 14, the transport ministry started a third safety inspection, which will continue indefinitely. The ministry should pinpoint who engaged in the data fabrication and take all necessary action in accordance with the law.

JR Hokkaido has accepted eight experts from East Japan Railway Co. (JR Higashi Nippon) as members of a special committee to improve its rail track maintenance. But this will not produce effective results unless JR Hokkaido’s management and labor unions make serious efforts to change their slack attitude toward railway safety. It was only on Nov. 20 that JR Hokkaido ordered all train drivers and conductors to undergo alcohol testing before the start of each shift. Until then, workers could get exempted from such tests simply by telling the company that they cannot drink alcohol due to their physical constitution.

Drastic measures will be inevitable given the depth of the crisis at JR Hokkaido, including the resignation of current executives and the introduction of completely new management. Prosecutors should not hesitate to file criminal charges when appropriate.

  • Quote: “While it may be tempting for JR Hokkaido’s management or labor unions to blame factors such as a lack of funds, the nature of the incidents suggest that JR Hokkaido is facing a crisis of ethics”.
    There should be no surprise that people are at risk when operational decisions are clearly ‘political’. That’s what happens when the counterparty is the powerless taxpayer. People inevitably get killed. Perceptions rule; which drives unaccountable state employees to fabricate/falsify information. It is not a shallow reason to argue that JR Hokkaido ‘lacks funds’; indeed its the crux of the problem, aside from the political delusion that persists with unsafe services as a public good. If said services are not economic, then services must be curtailed. Having travelled to some far-flung areas of Japan, some of these services are simply not used at all. Either Japan fosters immigration (with some commensurate reward for living in these areas) or they curtail services to rural communities. The fact that said decisions cannot be made is a testament to the failures of our political system; not corporation ethics, which are beholden to governments.

    • jr_hkkdo

      I am a relatively new resident to Japan and not a Japanese citizen. My concern is that this may be mostly a structural issue of organization. When the JNR was privatized years ago, it seems to have been done geographically with not much concern for passenger volume (the number of users) in each new JR company. Hence, Hokkaido and maybe some others (Shikoku? and others?) may suffer indefinitely due to lack of funds just because there are not enough paying customers in some of the JR companies to generate the cash flow/profits to fund capital maintenance and improvements. I even worry about the JR-Hokkaido shinkansen system set to come online in 2015. With the current JR-Hokkaido maintenance problems occurring, how can we trust the future safe operation of the JR-Hokkaido shinkansen? My preliminary conclusion is that the JR companies may need to be reorganized into more economically viable units, transcending geographical boundaries, to equalize the passenger volume and the JR company income, so that adequate funding is available for all JR companies to safely maintain all JR systems everywhere. The alternative is for the national government to step in and subsidize these poorer JR companies with money – which may be a short term solution, but not good for the long term.

      • Well, subsidies are a burden on other people. Western nations have to reduce burdens to keep their populations economically relevant. Servicing scantly populated areas for the sake of populations which cannot practicably use them is senseless. Under-utilising infrastructure is also silly. The govt needs a rational & frank discussion with the Japanese people to increase the population of these communities if these infrastructure are to remain. I live in rural NZ and its silly to prop up these towns with various subsidies when govts are ultimately driving these countries into irrelevancy. Govts don’t protect – they destroy. Companies grow at rates of 16% on average; burdened by govt, the best populations can do in the good years are 4%. Even China can muster 10%; albeit by being the focus of ‘Western industrialisation’, servicing mostly Western (barely Chinese) markets.