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Probe into bullet train crack uncovers lack of communication, underestimation of danger

JR West officials, from left, Shinkasen management chief Kuniaki Morikawa, President Tatsuo Kijima and Vice President Norihiko Yoshie bow their heads alongside others at the beginning of a news conference at the company's headquarters in Osaka's Kita Ward on the afternoon of Dec. 27, 2017. (Mainichi)

OSAKA -- Following the recent discovery that a Shinkansen bullet train with a dangerous undercarriage crack ran for over three hours after staff noticed something was amiss, West Japan Railway Co. (JR West) President Tatsuo Kijima said in a news conference on Dec. 27 that trains would be stopped without hesitation if any problems were noticed in the future.

At the same time, the results of a probe highlight the dangerous situation brought about by the bullet train continuing to operate with some 1,000 passengers onboard while suggestions by maintenance staff that the train be checked went unheeded.

At 1:35 p.m. on Dec. 11, right after the Nozomi bullet train in question had departed from Hakata Station, an abnormality was detected on the 13th carriage of the train under which a crack was later found. A 25-year-old crew member reported a high-pitched sound in the carriage, but the 56-year-old chief conductor judged that there were no problems. At about 1:50 p.m., when the train departed from Kokura Station, onboard sales staff noticed a smell "like burning metal" around the seventh and eighth carriages of the train. A similar smell was also detected in the 11th carriage.

At about 2:30 p.m., before the train arrived at Hiroshima Station, a command center worker who had received a report ordered maintenance staff to board the train. Three workers got on at Okayama Station further down the line, by which time more abnormalities had surfaced. Over the 15-minute journey between Fukuyama and Okayama stations, three passengers in the 13th carriage reported a haze in the carriage in addition to the smell. The smell also spread to the fourth and 10th carriages.

After this, when three maintenance workers boarded, they sensed abnormal vibrations and noise in the 13th carriage, and suggested that the undercarriage be checked. However, when a 34-year-old command center worker asked whether the problem was hindering travel, one 60-year-old maintenance worker replied, "It hasn't gone that far. We haven't looked at it so we don't know what's causing it." This could be perceived as a vague reply, but the command center worker took it to mean that there was no hindrance to operations.

This maintenance worker then asked, "Shall we check under the floor as a safety precaution at Shin-Osaka Station?" However, the command center worker had moved the phone away from their ear after being asked for a report from the center head, and missed this suggestion. Maintenance staff assumed that the command center would arrange an inspection, while the command center staff thought that maintenance workers, being experts, would convey any dangers. With workers thus leaving action up to each other, the train continued on to Nagoya Station, where an inspection was finally carried out and the crack detected.

In 2005 a derailment on JR West's Fukuchiyama Line claimed the lives of 106 people. After this, the company adopted a safety code stating, "When wavering over a decision, one must take what is regarded as the safest course of action." During a news conference lasting about three hours, it was pointed out that the company had not followed this code. All Kijima could do was to reply, "We cannot simply promote a safety code; we have to link it with concrete action in each workplace."

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