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Editorial: JR group should take bullet train crack incident very seriously

A crack in an undercarriage of a Shinkansen bullet train, which forced the train to discontinue its operation, has proven to be more serious than initially thought. A photo released by West Japan Railway Co. (JR West) shows a massive crack running through the upper part of the undercarriage. If the undercarriage had ruptured and caused the train to derail, it would undoubtedly have led to a serious accident.

    A crack in a bullet train undercarriage had been unprecedented. Light should be shed on the cause of this abnormality in an undercarriage made of steel, as well as problems involving its design, materials and manufacturing process. Attention should also be directed toward whether the problem could affect all undercarriages of bullet trains on Shinkansen lines across the country.

    JR West and the government's Japan Transport Safety Board (JTSB) should get to the bottom of what caused the trouble. But questions remain as to how seriously JR West is taking the problem.

    The bullet train concerned, the Nozomi No. 34, was bound for Tokyo from Hakata Station in Fukuoka Prefecture on Dec. 11. The train was operated on JR West's Sanyo Shinkansen Line from Hakata to Shin-Osaka and then the Tokaido Shinkansen Line of Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Central). Crewmembers noticed a burning smell after the train left Kokura Station, also in Fukuoka Prefecture. Abnormal noises were subsequently reported on the train.

    JR Central President Koei Tsuge told a news conference on Dec. 20 that JR Central crewmembers who took over the train at Shin-Osaka Station had been notified by JR West that the odor and noise "wouldn't affect its operation." Tsuge said he wished JR West had examined the equipment under the train's floor at Shin-Osaka Station, criticizing JR West's response to the train's abnormal state.

    At a separate news conference, JR West President Tatsuo Kijima only went as far as to say that the details of the information on the train's condition that JR West passed on to JR Central at Shin-Osaka were "under investigation."

    JR West and JR Central face a challenge in which they should be cooperating closely. A lack of cooperation could adversely affect bullet train safety. Which JR company is operating which part of a bullet train's journey is of no real concern to most passengers; they are simply riding one Shinkansen train. The companies in the JR group must demonstrate their determination to ensure the safety of train operations to passengers instead of placing the blame on each other.

    One cannot help but wonder why neither of the companies stopped the train at an earlier stage. Mechanics boarded the train at Okayama Station and proposed stopping the train for inspections, but the train continued running at the instruction of the line's operation center in Tokyo.

    Railway operators should consider giving more authority to crewmembers and mechanics on the ground regarding train operations if opinions differ between the operation center and workers who are examining the trains with their own eyes.

    No abnormalities were reportedly found on the undercarriage when it was visually inspected by maintenance crewmembers the previous day. If there are limits to visual inspections, the inspection process should be beefed up with the introduction of ultrasound and other technologies that allow for internal parts to be checked.

    The safety of Shinkansen lines, which play a major role in the transport of people on the Japanese archipelago, has never been called into question this seriously, as massive numbers of people prepare to travel by bullet trains to go back to their hometowns or take trips during the year-end and New Year holiday period.

    JR companies should proactively disseminate information if they are to restore the public's trust in the bullet train system.

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