What's behind JR Hokkaido's sloppy track management?
SAPPORO -- A loss of focus on its rail business and poor internal communications appear to be a few of the many problems that led to the recently discovered, widespread unfixed track problems on railways managed by the Hokkaido Railway Co. (JR Hokkaido.)
A total of 270 spots with maintenance problems were found to have been left unattended.
Though primarily a rail company, JR Hokkaido has expanded its operations into other fields. At Sapporo Station, the directly connected, 38-story "JR Tower" commercial facility bustles with customers. Betting its future on the facility's success, JR Hokkaido paid around 75 billion yen to build JR Tower, which opened in 2003. The combined yearly sales of the facility and its nearby commercial complexes are worth over 130 billion yen, and the structure's success has shifted the city's main commerce center from the area around Odori Park to the station. This can be seen as a manifestation of JR Hokkaido's diversification of its business practices beyond railways.
"I cannot deny the possibility that, looking for other lines of profit besides the money-losing rail business, we let our original line of work falter," says a former JR Hokkaido director.
Meanwhile, after the discovery of the unattended rail problems a former JR Hokkaido senior official said, "This is a technical problem, not a financial one. We were in the black in fiscal 2012." However, looking at the company's expenditures on safety equipment, one sees that spending fell from 8.1 billion yen in fiscal 2009 to 5.8 billion yen in fiscal 2010. It wasn't until an accident on the Sekisho Line in 2011 that injured 79 people that the company changed direction, increasing expenditures on safety.
More recently, August this year saw repeated engine fires, and September the derailing of a freight train. One veteran employee says, "Though this may invite criticism, it is good that (nonfatal) accidents happened before someone got killed. I hope the company looks at the reality of these maintenance problems."
Regarding the number of maintenance personnel, at a press conference on Oct. 4, after JR Hokkaido was ordered by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT) to improve its business practices, Toshiyuki Koyama, managing director who heads the firm's integrated planning headquarters, said, "We have put enough personnel on the ground." That was in contrast, however, to the opinion of an on-site maintenance worker who complained there weren't enough staff members.
Meanwhile, an MLIT investigation into the matter uncovered that the company's management was ignorant of how safety checks were being done on-site. At a press conference on Sept. 21, JR Hokkaido director and head of the engineering department Masayuki Kasajima said that the "headquarters and local maintenance offices double check" the main lines that high-speed trains run on. However, after 49 locations on main lines with unattended maintenance problems were revealed the very next day, Kasajima retracted his claim and admitted "the headquarters was not conducting close checks."
The MLIT has criticized the company as failing to have good internal communications, without even basic work rules being passed from the headquarters to local maintenance offices. A ministry official calls the company's practices "abnormal."
Another problem for JR Hokkaido is age gaps among employees. The pairings of technicians that make safety checks on the company's train cars are often composed of a person in their 20s and a person in their 50s. People in the company refer to it as a pairing of "the sugoroku (Japanese-style board game) and video game generations." The gap is attributable to the period around 1987 when the company was formed out of the Japanese National Railways and was burdened with around 20 percent more employees than it needed. In response, the company kept down its hiring for a time, but this has meant that employees in their 40s, who should be the main workers on the ground, now only account for 9.5 percent of its current workforce.
Yet another problem holding back the company is disputes between its four different labor unions. According to multiple employees, there continue to be social rifts among workers in the various unions. Come October, one of these unions called for "joint activity" with the other unions, saying, "We will begin discussions for fair treatment of employees regardless of which union they belong to, to improve the work atmosphere." However, the mere fact that the unions call for such a thing is an indication of how bad relations have been.
It remains to be seen what will become of JR Hokkaido, whose current situation President Makoto Noguchi has called a "life-or-death crisis."
(This is part 1 of a three-part series)
October 13, 2013(Mainichi Japan)