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Broken bullet train stayed in service for 3 hours after 1st report of irregularities

The 13th carriage of a JR West N700 series "Nozomi No. 34" bullet train, where a crack and oil leak were discovered, is shown at JR Nagoya Station on Dec. 12, 2017. (Mainichi)

A passenger on a Shinkansen bullet train car found to have a cracked frame and an oil leak on Dec. 11 reported a "haze" in the affected carriage to one of the crew earlier that day, operator West Japan Railway Co. (JR West) has told the Mainichi Shimbun.

The Tokyo-bound Nozomi No. 34 was taken out of service at JR Nagoya Station, though by then staff had already been aware of multiple reports of strange sounds and smells for some three hours, including the "haze" in carriage No. 13.

The Japan Transportation Safety Board is treating the problem as the Shinkansen bullet train system's first "serious incident" and has dispatched railway accident investigators. The board will also look into how it was decided to keep the train in service despite the irregularities.

According to JR West, a crew member and others on the N700 model train noticed a "burning smell" at about 1:50 p.m. on Dec. 11, soon after the train left JR Kokura Station in Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture. The Nozomi continued its run, departing JR Fukuyama Station in Hiroshima Prefecture at about 3 p.m. Soon after, a passenger in his 30s in carriage No. 13 told the onboard food and beverage service person that there was a "haze" in the car. By the time a conductor had come to investigate, the haze had dissipated, leading the conductor to judge there was "no problem."

In addition to the cracked carriage frame, discoloration thought to be scorch marks was discovered on one of carriage No. 13's "couplings" -- a part for transmitting power from the car's motor to its wheels. JR West told the Mainichi, "We currently believe the coupling reached a high temperature and produced a vapor."

At about 3:15 p.m. on Dec. 11, a maintenance crew boarded the Nozomi at Okayama Station and confirmed a "groaning" sound. However, they judged that it "did not suggest there was any hindrance to travel," and the bullet train operations center ordered the Nozomi to continue on its way.

At Shin-Osaka Station, the JR West crew handed the train over to a Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Central) crew. Just after leaving JR Kyoto Station -- the next stop -- at about 4:20 p.m., the JR Central conductor noticed an odd smell. This was reported to the bullet train operations center, which ordered the Nozomi inspected at the next stop, Nagoya. There, at about 5 p.m., inspectors found oil leaking from the gearbox connecting a coupling and one of carriage No. 13's wheels. It had been about three hours since the first report of an odd smell on board.

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