Schedule eyed in Japan crash

Speed was a factor in Monday's train accident near Osaka, which killed at least 95.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

At 8:30 a.m, Mrs. Ooiishi is waiting as she always does for her train amid a steady ebb and flow of commuters. She says she's upset by a deadly train accident here on Monday, but it won't change her daily ritual much.

"I take the train every day," she says. But, Ooiishi adds, "My husband and I decided never to sit in the first car of that train again."

Riding the train is a way of life in Japan - more so than in almost any industrialized nation. But this week, at the close of the morning rush hour, a speeding commuter train jumped the tracks in Amagasaki, just outside of Osaka, crumpling train cars and killing at least 95 people while injuring more than 450 others.

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In this safety-conscious country, where efficiency and high-tech precision are prized, the crash - Japan's worst in 42 years - has come as a jolt, and sparked an investigation into whether speed and pressure to stay on schedule contributed to the tragedy.

Wednesday, rescue workers continued to pull bodies from the wreckage even as people contacted West Japan Railway saying that their relatives or friends were missing and may have been on the train. Authorities have opened an investigation of JR West for possible negligence.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi offered condolences to the victims' families, as did Emperor Akihito, in an unusual unscripted statement. And while analysts say speed alone may not be the culprit, Transportation Minister Kazuo Kitagawa promised to review safety procedures and said the government would order JR West to evaluate its operations after an investigation is completed. "Efficiency is necessary, but safety cannot be sacrificed," he said.

Data from the train's recorder indicate it was going 62 miles per hour - the maximum speed is 42 m.p.h. - as it approached Amagasaki station. JR West said the driver, who had been reprimanded for overshooting a stop last June, did so again, and may have been speeding to make up for falling 90 seconds behind schedule.

Japan has one of the mostly densely constructed train networks in the world. Each day, about 26,000 trains travel on a network stretching some 12,400 miles across Japan's four main islands.

According to the Statistical Handbook of Japan, Japanese trains carried 21.6 billion passengers in 2002. By comparison, 2 billion Germans traveled by train in the same year, according to German government figures.

Even the most rural fishing village has a station. Straphangers spend long hours on trains reading, text messaging, or simply dozing off, deterred from driving by clogged streets and limited parking.

Faith in trains' finely calibrated schedules and their dependability is the norm, at least in urban areas. Drivers announce even 30-second delays caused by, say, a red light. Trust has been cultivated as well by conductors who remind passengers not to leave their belongings behind, and stations that carefully log lost items for their owners to reclaim.

Japan's system has seen few major accidents: In 1963, three trains collided outside of Tokyo, killing 161 people; in 1991, an accident killed 42 people in western Japan; and in 2000, five people were killed and 33 were injured when a Tokyo subway hit a derailed train.

The Shinkansen, Japan's showcase train that whisks people across the country at speeds of up to 186 m.p.h., has never derailed since its inception in 1964, underscoring Japan's image as having one of the world's safest railways.

Monday's possible compromise of this reputation is a key factor underlying the nation's shock.

Shoko Shimizu, a young doctor who lives in Osaka, is also upset by the crash. "I believed that the train was the safest means of transportation," she says. "Now I feel angry. Passengers' lives are in a driver's hands. The most important thing for them [train drivers] is that the trains run strictly on time, instead of safety."

Despite Monday's accident, observers reckon that faith in Japan's railways is not likely to erode quickly.

"JR is still the cheapest and safest way to travel," says Mayumi Futamura, an office worker in Osaka. "This accident will not prevent me from taking the train."

Yoko Mineyama in Osaka and wire reports contributed to this article.

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