[Paleopsych] NYT: In Japan Crash, Time Obsession May Be Culprit

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Wed Apr 27 19:26:55 UTC 2005

In Japan Crash, Time Obsession May Be Culprit


    AMAGASAKI, Japan, April 26 - Anywhere else in the world, a train
    running 90 seconds late would perhaps be considered on time. But in
    Japan, 90 seconds would foil commuters who depend on trains'
    connecting to one another with balletic precision, often with only a
    couple of minutes to spare.

    And so to make up for a lost 90 seconds, a 23-year-old train driver,
    it became increasingly clear on Tuesday, was speeding when his train
    jumped off the tracks on Monday morning at a curve here in western
    Japan and hurtled into a nine-story apartment building.

    In this rusting industrial town just outside Osaka, rescue workers
    continued to try to free other passengers trapped inside the twisted
    and crumpled cars.

    Across the country, the accident has already caused much
    soul-searching over Japan's attention - some would say obsession -
    with punctuality and efficiency. To many, the driver's single-minded
    focus on making up the 90 seconds seemed to reveal the weak points of
    a society where the trains really do run on time, but where people
    have lost sight of the bigger picture.

    "Japanese believe that if they board a train, they'll arrive on time,"
    said Yasuyuki Sawada, a 49-year-old railway worker, who had come to
    look at the crash site. "There is no flexibility in our society;
    people are not flexible, either."

    Mr. Sawada was one of many people who came to stand and watch behind
    the yellow police line here, and who saw deeper problems hidden in the

    "If you go abroad, you find that trains don't necessarily arrive on
    time," Mr. Sawada said. "This disaster was produced by Japanese
    civilization and Japanese people."

    [The death toll in the accident, the deadliest in Japan in four
    decades, rose Wednesday to 91, Japanese news media reported.]

    The Japanese search for rail perfection is relentless, from the humble
    commuter train to the country's most famous tracks. In 2004, on the
    40th anniversary of the bullet train, there was much hand-wringing
    over the fact that a year earlier the trains on that line had
    registered on average a delay - of six seconds.

    In Tokyo, the Yamanote line, which loops around the city core, has
    been making that trip ever more quickly thanks to better trains, down
    to 62 minutes in 1988 from 70 minutes in 1964 and 75 minutes in 1946,
    and, train officials project, under 60 minutes by the end of next

    Train companies are secretive about delays. But any regular rider
    notices that they tend to be caused not by engineering mishaps but by
    events beyond human control, like typhoons and people jumping in front
    of trains. So confident is Japan in its trains' safety that there are
    no restrictions on how close residential buildings can be erected next
    to tracks: it is not rare to see them only three feet apart.

    Keeping to increasingly packed and tight schedules has become
    all-important, not only for trains, but also for airlines. Japan
    Airlines said this month that a recent series of mishaps had been
    caused by its excessive focus on keeping to schedule.

    The pressure to stay on schedule is so great, conductors apologize
    profusely even over a one-minute delay. In the United States and
    Europe, "late" often means a delay of six minutes or more.

    "No question about it - there is no other rail system more punctual
    than Japan's," said Shigeru Haga, a professor of transportation and
    industrial psychology at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. "It's No. 1 in
    the world for its punctuality and safety.

    "I personally think Japanese should relax more and think that two- to
    three-minute delays are no trouble. But you see people rushing up and
    down the station stairs to catch a train even if there's another one
    coming in two minutes."

    This month, the West Japan Railway Company, the operator of the train
    involved in the crash, for the first time issued a statement to its
    employees saying that delays would betray customers' confidence.

    It was perhaps with this statement in mind that the driver, Ryujiro
    Takami, directed a train heading into Osaka on Monday morning. Mr.
    Takami, whose body has yet to be recovered, had only 11 months of
    experience, and had been reprimanded once for overshooting a platform
    by 328 feet.

    On Monday morning, at Itami station outside Osaka, Mr. Takami overshot
    the platform again, forcing him to back up and lose 90 seconds.
    Apparently aware that he would be reprimanded again, he persuaded the
    conductor at the back of the train to report that he had overrun the
    platform by 26 feet. On Tuesday, officials said that the length was
    actually 131 feet, the equivalent of two cars.

    The authorities, investigating possible negligence, raided West Japan
    Railway offices in the Amagasaki area on Tuesday for documents
    relating to the crash. They also recovered the train's data recorder.
    It is believed that the train approached the curve at more than 62
    miles an hour, well over the limit of 44 m.p.h.

    The train, carrying about 580 passengers, began running abnormally
    fast after leaving Itami station, passengers reported. The train was
    scheduled to arrive at Amagasaki station at 9:20 a.m., in time for
    many passengers to connect to another train leaving at 9:23.

    The driver had made up 30 seconds, so the train was running only 60
    seconds late when it derailed at a curve here and slammed into the
    building a dozen or so feet away.

    "The Japanese people are responsible for this accident, too," said
    Toshinami Habe, 67, a chief of sales at a company here in Amagasaki.
    "This is a society of free competition; there's no flexibility. That's
    why with even a one-and-a-half-minute delay, he had to try to make up
    the time."

    Standing behind the yellow police line, Mr. Habe said that he had been
    thinking about the accident all night long and that he had found it
    hard to sleep. He criticized the lack of regulations that allows
    residential buildings to stand so near the tracks.

    "I knew this would happen one day," he said. "Although it's said that
    Japan is No. 1 in punctuality, the most important thing is safety."

    Dozens Dead in Sri Lanka Crash

    COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, April 27 (AP) - A passenger train
    collided Wednesday with a bus in northwestern Sri Lanka, and a police
    spokesman said he had received reports of at least 50 people dead.

    The bus apparently ignored warning signals and tried to cross the
    tracks near the town of Alawwa when it was hit by the train, the
    spokesman, Rienzie Perera, said.

    In addition to those believed dead, at least 30 others suffered
    serious injuries, he said.

    The train had been traveling from Colombo to the temple city of Kandy.

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