At least 73 die in Japanese train crash

Speculation focuses on operator trying to make up lost time

April 26, 2005|By Bruce Wallace | Bruce Wallace,LOS ANGELES TIMES

TOKYO - An effort to make up 60 seconds on a train schedule might have led yesterday to Japan's deadliest rail crash in four decades, a morning rush-hour derailment that left at least 73 people dead and 442 injured.

The accident stunned a nation where millions of commuters move daily along intricate arteries of train lines and schedules are tightly synchronized. Japanese media and others speculated that the young train driver's race to make up for lost time had caused the crash.

Rescuers searched for survivors through the night into this morning, picking through the crumpled carcass of the seven-car train that jumped the tracks, apparently at high speed, before wrapping itself around a nine-story apartment building near Osaka.

Investigators were uncertain what caused the train to jump the tracks. Officials said the train had overshot the previous station, forcing it to back up to let passengers on and off. It lost 90 seconds and was running 60 seconds behind schedule when it crashed on a bend.

Two cars left the tracks, rammed a parked car and hit the building situated 20 feet from the line. The other five cars plowed into the ones ahead, flinging about 580 passengers into a tangle of crushed and bent metal and leaving the train impaled in the building.

Survivors described a horrific crush inside the cars as the train left the tracks and skidded. Passengers in the back of the cars were thrown toward the front "like they were washed away," one passenger said.

"It was like the picture of hell," an unidentified male survivor told Japanese TV after he was freed from the front car.

More than 150 of the passengers suffered serious injuries. Three people - two 18-year-old men and a 46-year-old woman - were pulled from the wreckage more than 15 hours after the crash. Rescue workers said it was likely more people were still inside the bent cars.

The whereabouts and condition of the driver were uncertain. It was unknown whether there were casualties outside the train.

For a country with an enviable safety record, the derailment was a shock and focused attention on the complex connections in a transportation system that moves about 60 million passengers a day - almost half the country.

Critics say it places punctuality ahead of safety.

Officials of the West Japan Railway Co. said the accident could have been caused by several factors, including rocks on the track.

They calculated that the train would have had to be traveling 82 mph, or almost twice the 43-mph speed limit on that section of track, for its wheels to lift off the line. The train was not capable of such speed, they said.

Surviving passengers told reporters that the train was traveling much faster than normal when the accident occurred.

"I thought there were some strange swings and then the train derailed," passenger Tatsuya Akashi told Japan's public broadcaster NHK.

The 23-year-old driver, identified as Ryujiro Takami, had failed to stop properly at the previous station, sliding about 26 feet past the platform. He was forced to back up the train to align its doors.

The delay put the train 90 seconds behind schedule.

Takami had been driving for 11 months and had been reprimanded once for overshooting a station by about 100 yards, officials said. There was widespread speculation that he panicked at finding himself off schedule because of another error.

Japan's extensive rail network runs on a precision timetable that allows passengers to count on making connections. Passengers frequently check train times by accessing schedules on the Internet from their cell phones while traveling.

The trains also operate in a culture where being on time is a social virtue, putting great stress on drivers.

"If a driver creates a delay, it would immediately be reflected on his evaluation," transport engineer Kiyoshi Sakurai told Ashai TV.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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