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Support groups call for JR to improve barrier-free access on bullet trains

Noboru Imamura rides a Shinkansen bullet train with his wheelchair sticking out into the aisle, and unable to sit with other wheelchair users. (Photo courtesy of Noboru Imamura)

With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics approaching, support groups for people with disabilities are calling on Japan's railway operators to improve barrier-free access on their Shinkansen bullet trains.

Under Japanese law, bullet train operators are required to designate at least one wheelchair location per train car, and all the various Japan Railway (JR) companies running Shinkansen report they are meeting this requirement. They differ only in the type of accommodation, with cars equipped with either "wheelchair seating" or a "multipurpose room" being the most common, allowing for up to two wheelchair users per car in the majority of cases.

Tokyo resident Noboru Imamura, 52, who became a paraplegic in an accident and now uses a motorized wheelchair, must travel on the Shinkansen at least once a month as part of his work as a representative for support groups for persons with disabilities. On one such trip at the end of February, he booked a wheelchair seat in the reserved seating car of a bullet train in advance.

The space was made by removing the aisle seats from the last two three-seat rows of the train to make room for a wheelchair. The setup imagines a passenger using the space to fix a folded wheelchair in place and sit in the adjoining seat. However, for Imamura, who cannot fold up his wheelchair nor move to sit in the seat, his wheelchair simply sticks out and blocks the aisle. While two aisle seats are removed, it is still hard to fit two wheelchairs, and Imamura said he has given up traveling together with other wheelchair-using friends in the same car.

Wheelchair passengers also face other barriers, such as being required to purchase reserved seat tickets rather than use the less expensive free seating cars, and not being allowed on the train if they use a stretcher-type wheelchair more than 120 centimeters long.

"I want to be able to use the Shinkansen more easily, and if possible, sit by the window," Imamura said. "With the number of tourists coming from abroad increasing, the trains should be made more accessible."

The Japan National Assembly of Disabled Peoples' International (DPI-Japan), an NPO made up of various support groups for people with disabilities, lists among their highest priorities making it possible for six to 10 wheelchair users to ride in one Shinkansen car by 2020.

"Many tourists with disabilities will visit for the Paralympic Games," stated Secretary General Satoshi Sato of DPI-Japan. "The space now is not enough."

East Japan Railway Co. has stated it will "consider following in the footsteps of the accommodations made by the government in the future," while Central Japan Railway Co. commented, "Even though there are limits due to the layout of the trains," it would like to accommodate wheelchair passengers. West Japan Railway Co. also said it "would like to work towards reflecting government action plans" toward a more barrier-free environment.

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