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JR West has mechanics sit near speeding bullet trains in 'scary' safety training

A bullet train hurtles into a tunnel on the Sanyo Shinkansen Line in Hatsukaichi, Hiroshima Prefecture, in this file photo taken on June 17, 2018. (Mainichi)

OSAKA -- West Japan Railway Co. (JR West) has had its bullet train mechanics sit between train tracks as superexpress trains hurtle past at 300 kilometers per hour to have them feel the trains' speed and understand the importance of safety, people close to the firm have disclosed.

JR West has defended the practice, saying it is aimed at teaching mechanics the importance of confirming inspections, such as whether bolts on the trains are sufficiently tightened. But labor union leaders and experts have questioned the wisdom and effectiveness of such training, described by some participants as "scary."

According to the Osaka-based railway operator, such training sessions are conducted in passageways between the inbound and outbound tracks in tunnels on the Sanyo Shinkansen Line. The passageways are approximately 1 meter deep and 1 meter wide.

In such sessions, several mechanics, who usually do not enter railway tracks during their regular duties, crouch in the passageway and feel the speed of two to three bullet trains passing above them at maximum speeds of 300 kilometers per hour.

JR West's Hakata bullet train depot in Fukuoka and the depot's Hiroshima branch began such training in February 2016 in the wake of an accident in which a metal part fell off a bullet train inside a tunnel in Fukuoka Prefecture in 2015. As of the end of July 2018, about 190 bullet train mechanics had participated in a total of 24 such sessions, held between Kokura and Hakata stations, and between Hiroshima and Shin-Iwakuni stations on the line.

A mechanic in his 50s said the program is called "feeling 300 kph up close training." Since he had heard from colleagues that it was "scary," he told his boss he did not want to participate. However, his boss told him that mechanics "are supposed to take turns" in undergoing such training sessions and he had to take part.

In the particular session in which the mechanic took part, participants were split into two groups, which took turns going into the tunnel. After donning a helmet and goggles, he crouched in a tunnel passageway with his co-workers and lowered his head as the speeding bullet trains approached.

The mechanic said three trains passed near him during the training session he underwent.

"The wind pressure was enormous. I felt as if I had been pressed down from above, and it was scary. I wonder what the meaning of such training is," the man said.

The two groups subsequently held discussions and wrote about their feelings during the session. That was the end of the "training."

The mechanic said a co-worker who underwent such training on another day also told him it was "scary."

The accident that prompted the company to begin such training occurred on Aug. 8, 2015. According to a report by the government's Japan Transport Safety Board (JTSB), a 71-centimeter-wide, 62.5-centimeter-high aluminum alloy panel fell from the second car of a bullet train and hit the tunnel wall and then the train body. A passenger in the third car was injured from the impact of the accident. The JTSB concluded that it was highly likely that bolts were not sufficiently tightened, and pointed out that insufficient inspections of the train had also been a factor.

"We can understand what'd happen if bolts weren't tightened enough even without feeling the speed of trains in a tunnel. It's problematic to expose employees to danger," the mechanic said.

Another employee described the training as "just like a public flogging."

The West Japan Railway Workers Union comprising about 700 JR West employees has demanded since May 2017 that the company stop such training, but the management has not complied.

JR West emphasized that the training is aimed at providing mechanics opportunities to learn about the importance of their safety measures.

"Employees who regularly enter tracks have already had experiences of standing by in the central passageway. The training program in question is aimed at providing vehicle mechanics with the opportunity to have similar experiences and learn the importance of their work," a JR West official said. "We have taken sufficient measures to ensure their safety."

Kansai University professor Takahiro Nakamura, who is well-versed in human error theory, pointed out that the training is risky and inappropriate.

"There are safety education methods in which workers experience simulated dangers to prevent work-related accidents. However, the company's training is problematic because the risks of an accident occurring in a tunnel can't be completely eliminated," Nakamura said.

"The program may be based on the idea that people can change their awareness if they have intense experiences, but human errors cannot be eliminated so easily," he said.

"Undergoing such experiences in a tunnel is far removed from the company's goal of raising employees' awareness of the importance of maintenance work. Such training is meaningless unless the company provides education that fills the gap," the professor pointed out.

Central Japan Railway Co., the operator of the Tokaido Shinkansen Line running between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka, conducted similar training for some employees over a period of about five years up until the business year of 2015.

(Japanese original by Takeshi Nemoto, City News Department)

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