Japan tunnel collapse ignites debate about infrastructure spending

Japan has ordered immediate inspections of dozens of road and highway tunnels after the ceiling of a tunnel near Tokyo collapsed on Sunday, killing nine people. 

Kyodo News/AP
Workers inspect the structure inside the 8.5-kilometer (5.3-mile) Enasan Tunnel on the Chuo Expressway in Achimura, Nagano Prefecture, central Japan, Monday morning. Japan has ordered immediate inspections of dozens of road and highway tunnels after concrete ceiling panels fell onto moving vehicles deep inside another tunnel on the same epressway Sunday, killing nine people.

Japan has ordered immediate inspections of dozens of road and highway tunnels after the ceiling of a major tunnel near Tokyo collapsed on Sunday, killing nine people. The tragedy has prompted questions about the state of Japan’s huge network of roads and tunnels, as well as about related public spending as the country prepares for a general election on Dec. 16. 

“It’s going to be a big topic in the election,” says Masahiro Mochizuki, an analyst at Credit Suisse in Tokyo, noting that an investment in roads, bridges, and other infrastructure to coincide with the 1964 Tokyo Olympics had resulted in a modern-day inventory of aging facilities in need of repair.  

“Japanese people totally changed their mindset after last year’s earthquake," he says. "They want to live in a safe environment – that’s their priority. Without investment in infrastructure, the Japanese people can’t go about their lives and the country can’t do business.”

The deaths from the collapse occurred after about 270 slabs of concrete used to aid ventilation became detached from the tunnel’s walls and roof, and crashed on to vehicles below. The accident ignited leaking gasoline, sparking a blaze that sent black smoke billowing out of the tunnel’s entrances.

On Tuesday, police raided the headquarters and other offices of Central Japan Expressway (Nexco Central), which operates the affected stretch of highway about 80 kilometers (50 miles) west of Tokyo.

The firm is being investigated on suspicion of professional negligence after it emerged it had conducted only rudimentary safety checks on the 2.9 mile-long Sasago tunnel, and had not conducted major repairs to the ceiling of the tunnel since it opened to traffic in 1977. A Nexco Central spokesman said the firm would cooperate fully with the investigation.

What happened?

Nexco Central officials speculated that bolts used to connect the concrete slabs, each weighing up to 1.5 tons, to the tunnel’s inner wall and ceiling could have deteriorated with age. One theory is that the bolts, which have never been renewed, may have been loosened by seismic activity.

Ryoichi Yoshikawa, a Nexco Central official in charge of maintenance, said damaged bolts had been found at the site, adding that they did not appear to have been replaced in 35 years. "There is no record that shows repair work was carried out in the past,” he told reporters.

The company said that no structural faults had been found when routine tests were carried out in September, but admitted the inspection did not include acoustic tests on the section of ceiling that caved in. "That is something we need to reflect on,” Mr. Yoshikawa says. “I offer my profound apologies.”

The collapse sent almost 400 tons of concrete cascading on to vehicles about 1 mile inside the Tokyo-bound lane of the tunnel.

Using debate on infrastructure as election fodder

The Sasago tunnel is part of a nationwide network of more than 1,500 tunnels that dot Japan’s mountainous terrain. About a quarter of them were built during Japan’s dramatic postwar growth more than 30 years ago.

Shinzo Abe, who is expected to become Japan’s seventh prime minister in six years, promised his Liberal Democratic party would invest heavily in public works to boost the economy. The cost of repairing and maintaining roads, bridges and other infrastructure is expected to soar in the next two decades.

The prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, whose Democratic Party of Japan says it has reduced spending on public works by more than 30 percent in the past three years, blasted Mr. Abe’s plan as a return to wasteful pork-barrel politics, and said investment should be targeted instead at health care and other social services.

Three men and two women in their 20s who were traveling together in a rented van were killed. Another woman who was part of the group managed to escape and was treated for minor injuries. A truck driver who used his mobile phone to call a coworker just after the accident to ask for help also died.

Noda offered his condolences to the families of those who were killed. “I offer my sincere prayers to those who lost their lives or were injured in this accident,” he said. “I have ordered the transport ministry to do everything possible to help the injured and to quickly establish the cause of the accident so that something like this never happens again.”

The transport ministry ordered emergency safety checks of 49 tunnels of a similar age and design to the one involved in Sunday’s accident, and plans to complete them before millions of people drive to their hometowns for year-end and New Year celebrations.

Officials said the stretch of highway damaged on Sunday is unlikely to fully reopen this year, raising the possibility of widespread disruption during the busy holiday season. The tunnel, which links Tokyo to central and western Japan, is located along the Chuo expressway, a major artery used by about 47,000 vehicles a day.

Sunday’s accident was the worst of its kind since 1996, when a rockslide caused by the collapse of a tunnel in northern Japan engulfed cars and a bus, killing 20 people.

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