Probe starts into horror Japanese train crash

A packed commuter train jumped the tracks in western Japan on Monday and hurtled into an apartment complex, killing 54 people and injuring more than 417 others in the deadliest Japanese rail accident in four decades.

Investigators are focusing on whether excessive speed or the actions of the inexperienced, 23-year-old driver caused the crash in an urban area near Amagasaki, about 410km west of Tokyo.

The packed seven-car train was carrying 580 passengers when it derailed near Amagasaki, plowing through an automobile in its path before slamming into a nine-storey apartment complex.

Two of the five derailed cars were shoved inside and flattened against the wall of the building’s first-floor garage. Hundreds of rescue workers and police swarmed the wreckage to recover bodies, tend to the injured and try to free at least three survivors still trapped inside 13 hours after the crash.

The 9.18am accident occurred at a curve after a straightaway.

Passengers speculated that the driver—who is still unaccounted for—may have been speeding to make up for lost time after overshooting the previous station.

Investigators suspect speed and driver inexperience, but aren’t ruling out other explanations.

Minister of Transport Kazuo Kitagawa told reporters he will order all of Japan’s railway operators to conduct safety inspections in the coming days.

“It’s tragic,” Kitagawa said at the scene. “We have to investigate why this horrible accident happened.”

The Amagasaki fire department said the death toll has hit 54, and a Hyogo prefectural police official said at least 417 people have been taken to hospitals, among them 125 with broken bones and other serious injuries.

The accident is the worst rail disaster in nearly 42 years in safety-conscious Japan, which is home to one of the world’s most complex, efficient and heavily travelled rail networks.
A three-train crash in November 1963 killed 161 people in Tsurumi, outside Tokyo.

Tsunemi Murakami, safety director for train operator West Japan Railway Company, said it isn’t clear how fast the train was travelling.

A crew member aboard told police later he “felt the train was going faster than usual”, public broadcaster NHK said, echoing comments from passengers who told the network that the driver seemed to be trying to make up for lost time after overshooting the previous station by 8m and then having to back up.

The train was nearly two minutes behind schedule, media reports said.

The driver—identified as 23-year-old Ryujiro Takami—had obtained his train operator’s licence in May 2004. Three months later, he overran a station and was issued a warning for his mistake, railway officials and police said.

Monday’s crash occurred at a curve, where drivers are required to slow to a speed of 70kph. An automatic braking system along that stretch of track is among the oldest in Japan and can’t halt trains travelling at high speeds, transport ministry officials said. Newer systems are designed to stop trains at signs of trouble without requiring drivers to take emergency action.

Murakami, the JR West official, estimated that the train had to have been travelling at 133kph to have jumped the track purely because of excessive speed.

Investigators also found evidence of rocks on the tracks, but haven’t determined whether that contributed to the crash, he said.

Experts suspect a confluence of factors is to blame.

“There are very few train accidents in Japan in which a train has flipped just because it was going too fast. There might have been several conditions at work—speed, winds, poor train maintenance or ageing rails,” Kazuhiko Nagase, a Kanazawa Institute of Technology professor and train expert, told NHK.

“For the train to flip, it had to be travelling at an extremely high speed,” Nagase added.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi offered condolences to families of passengers who were killed, as did Emperor Akihito, in rare unscripted remarks at a news conference before an overseas goodwill trip.

Survivors said the force of the derailment sent passengers tumbling, and many were bloodied or unconscious.

“There was a violent shaking, and the next moment I was thrown to the floor ... and I landed on top of a pile of other people,” passenger Tatsuya Akashi told NHK. “I didn’t know what happened, and there were many people bleeding.”

Distraught relatives rushed to hospitals to search lists of the injured and dead. Takamichi Hayashi said his elder brother, 19-year-old Hiroki, called their mother on a cellphone from inside one of the train cars just after the crash, but remains unaccounted for. He said he heard Hiroki is among those still inside the wreckage.

Late on Monday, rescuers trained floodlights on the damaged cars and administered emergency medical care to three conscious survivors, but were hampered by worries about a gasoline leak, said Amagasaki fire department official Shohei Matsuda. Others were also inside but they are feared dead.

Deadly train accidents are rare in Japan. Five people were killed and 33 were injured in March 2000, when a Tokyo subway hit a derailed train. An accident killed 42 people in April 1991 in Shigaraki, western Japan.

An earthquake in 2004 caused a bullet train to derail—the first since the high-speed trains went into service 40 years ago.—Sapa-AP

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