Several JR Tokai Shinkansen trains operating in Western Japan were stranded on the evening of January 24 due to the effects of heavy snow and a once-in-a-decade cold wave that had wreaked havoc throughout Japan.
The stoppages, which affected more than a dozen trains between Takatsuki Station in Osaka Prefecture and Yamashina Station in Kyoto Prefecture, left more than 7,000 travelers stranded. They remained trapped inside the train carriages, in the most extreme case for nearly 10 hours.
The stoppages were caused by malfunctioning railway switches, which in some cases were clogged with snow. West Japan Railway Co. (JR West) apologized for an inadequate response to the snow situation. However, that is not sufficient. A thorough investigation needs to be carried out as soon as possible and measures taken to prevent a recurrence of such problems.
Effect of the Heavy Snow
According to JR West, railway switch (point) failures occurred at 21 locations from around 7:00 PM on January 24, resulting in 15 trains in the stretch between Takatsuki and Yamashina being unable to move. Sixteen passengers subsequently felt ill and had to be rushed to emergency facilities.
In one case, passengers trapped on a commuter train that had become stranded near Yamashina Station at 7:40 PM the previous evening were finally able to disembark only at 5:30 AM on January 25. Passengers were seen shivering as they trudged along the tracks to the nearest station amid the falling snow.
On some express trains, there were even announcements like, “If you want to get off the train, you may do so at your own risk.” The vaguely threatening tone of the announcements made passengers who were considering disembarking more reluctant to do so.
JR West explained that it had hesitated to take passengers off the carriages as it was snowing in the dark night. Instead, the company said it prioritized repairing the rail switches.
As a result, “it had taken a long time to make the decision” to make the announcements. The company apologized to any passengers who were offended by use of the expression “at your own risk.”
Deficient Heavy Snow Response
In truth, there was no justification for keeping passengers in the crowded cars for such a long period of time. Clearly, there was no hope of the weather improving or early resumption of operations. JR West needs to do some serious soul-searching concerning their error in judgment.
There were also other deficiencies in the way the company responded to the heavy snowfall. Although JR West’s own in-house standard for starting up its snow-melting equipment is “10 cm of snowfall within six hours,” it failed to do so this time even when the snowfall reached an estimated 8 cm. Actually, there was an accumulation of 15 cm within a short period.
The fact that no other private railway companies encountered the same problems is proof that JR West’s response was faulty.
Trucks and Automobiles Also Stuck
There were also problems on the Shin Meishin Expressway between Kyoto and Nagoya before daybreak on January 25. Moreover, numerous vehicles became stranded at several locations between Mie and Shiga prefectures. At one point, the line of trucks and automobiles stretched 34.5 km.
Finally, the congestion cleared up after 8:00 AM the following morning, January 26. Critics have pointed to issues that might have exacerbated the problem. For example, Central Nippon Expressway Company’s inadequate dissemination of information and responses to the traffic pileups.
Simply speaking, disasters caused by or compounded by human carelessness or negligence are man-made disasters. Railways and expressways are elements of infrastructure essential to supporting our modern society.
Quick response is an obligation, with both hardware and software, when disasters strike that exceed expectations. All companies involved in these sectors should bear that in mind.
(Read the editorial in Japanese.)
Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun