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Editorial: More efforts needed to make Japan train stations safe for sight impaired users

While safety measures at train station platforms have advanced in Japan over the past half century, we continue to witness accidents where people with visual disabilities fall off platforms.

    On Feb. 1, 1973, Takashi Ueno, who was sight impaired, fell from the Yamanote Line's Takadanobaba Station platform in Tokyo and died after being hit by an oncoming train. There were no Braille tactile blocks on the platform, and this fatal accident raised questions over the lack of countermeasures by the train operator, Japanese National Railways, which is now the Japan Railways (JR) group.

    Ueno, 42 at the time, lost his sight five years prior to the accident. He had gotten an acupuncturist and moxibustion practitioner license after attending a school near Takadanobaba Station, and the tragedy struck just when he was about to get married.

    Ueno's family sued the National Railways in 1975 to hold the railroad operator accountable. Supporters of the family continued to plead that train station platforms are "bridges without railings" for people with visual disabilities. The 10-year lawsuit was settled after the National Railways agreed to pay compensation and promised to "put efforts into implementing safety measures."

    Since this lawsuit, Braille blocks have started becoming more common mainly at train stations used by many people. As of the end of fiscal 2020, over 97% of stations with average daily users of at least 3,000 people had such blocks in place. At the same time, when it came to train stations with average daily users of under 3,000, a little less than 43% had them installed.

    While platform doors have started to appear recently, they vary among railroad companies, and the platform door-equipped stations only account for around 10% of all train stations. Tokyu Railways Co., which operates trains running in Tokyo and neighboring Kanagawa Prefecture, completed installing platform doors at all stations in spring 2020, but for the JR group and most private railway operators across Japan, they're still in the process of having such doors set up. In 2021, the Japanese government introduced a system where the cost of making train stations barrier-free can be added to fares to encourage railway companies to install platform doors.

    Train operators are also facing a new challenge: how to deal with stations with no staff, which account for nearly half of all train stations in the country. At JR Tsukumi Station in Oita Prefecture, which has no station staff on regular duty, a woman in her 80s who had a sight disability in her one eye died in December 2022 after being hit by a train. There was no emergency button at the station or an evacuation space underneath the platform.

    Meanwhile, efforts are being made using information technology to supplement a labor shortage. Kintetsu Railway Co. in west Japan is conducting a demonstration experiment on a ticket gate system which detects a user with a white cane. However, it's been pointed out that there are limitations to relying on machines. Local governments should consider undertaking the task of watching over users at unmanned stations.

    According to the Japanese transport ministry, there were 1,429 accidents where people fell off platforms in fiscal 2021, and many of those passengers were drunk. Twenty-eight of these accidents involved people with visual disabilities.

    A train station where users with sight impairments can feel at ease is a station friendly to all users. There is a need to make every effort possible to create such stations.

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