An effort to make up 90 seconds on a train schedule may have led to Japan’s deadliest rail crash in four decades, a Monday 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 whose schedules are tightly synchronized. Japanese media and others speculated that a young train driver’s race to make up for lost time had caused the crash.
Rescuers searched for survivors into Tuesday morning, picking through the crumpled remains of the seven-car train that skipped the tracks, apparently at high speed, before wrapping itself around a nine-story apartment building near Amagasaki, northwest of Osaka in western Japan.
Investigators were not certain why the train derailed. But officials said the train had overshot the previous station, forcing it to back up to let passengers on and off. It 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, which is 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 survivor said.
“It was like the picture of hell,” an unidentified man told Japanese TV after he was freed from the front car.
About 150 of the survivors 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 more people were probably still inside.
The whereabouts and condition of the driver were unknown.
For a country with an enviable rail safety record, the accident focused attention on the complex connections in a transportation system that moves 60 million riders a day.
Critics say the system places punctuality ahead of safety.
Officials of the private West Japan Railway Co. said the accident could have been caused by several factors, including stones 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 jump the rails. The train was not designed to reach that speed, they said.
Some 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,” Tatsuya Akashi told public broadcaster NHK.
The 23-year-old driver, identified as Ryujiro Takami, told superiors just before the crash that he had failed to stop properly at the previous station, sliding about 26 feet past the platform. But later it was discovered the train actually went 130 feet past the platform.
The driver had to back the train up to align its doors, and 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 speculation that he had panicked at finding himself off-schedule because of another error.
Rail officials said that before it derailed, Takami’s train had made up 30 seconds of time on the way to the next station, suggesting it was traveling faster than usual. An automatic braking system designed to slow speeding trains was too antiquated to have had any effect on the train, rail officials said.
Japan’s extensive rail network runs on a precise timetable that passengers rely on to make tight connections. Riders frequently check train times by accessing schedules on the Internet and from their cellphones.
Studies have shown that Japanese trains are the most punctual in the world, and their drivers work in a culture where being on time is a social virtue. That adds to the stress of their jobs, experts say.
“If a driver creates a delay, it would immediately be reflected on his evaluation,” Kiyoshi Sakurai, a writer and critic of Japan’s rail system, told Ashai TV. “The drivers are under pressure.”
Analysts say drivers are constantly racing to meet schedules and make up for the inevitable delays at stations.
“The structural problem of Japan’s railway systems is that punctual operations are the No. 1 priority,” said Naofumi Nakamura, a Tokyo University professor and expert on the railway industry. “There is excessive congestion, and a small delay would make an impact on the entire system or schedule.
“One way to reduce the congestion would be to reduce the frequency of service, but passengers would complain because the overcrowding would be worse.”
The emphasis on punctuality is not limited to rail transit.
This month, executives at Japan Airlines, the country’s largest carrier, admitted in a report to the government that they had been placing a higher priority on meeting arrival and departure times than on safety.
Japan’s transport ministry reprimanded the airline in March for a series of accidents and safety violations resulting, in large part, from time pressures. The national safety board suspended one Japan Airlines pilot for 30 days after he began takeoff procedures on a runway without air traffic clearance.
The airline said he had been trying to meet flight schedules.
Japan’s transport system has a laudable safety record. Monday’s death toll was the highest in a train accident since Japan’s national rail network was privatized in 1987. In 1991, 42 people were killed in a head-on collision between two trains in western Japan.
The worst accident occurred in 1963, when 161 people died in a three-train crash in Yokohama.
But the need to arrive on time has been a consistent feature of Japan’s postwar rail system, drivers say.
“For workers in the railway industry, one minute is big,” said Tsugio Okunishi, 70, who was a driver on the national railways for 32 years.
“We would get very nervous if we were one minute ahead or one minute behind. It is an occupational habit.
“Even now, when I get together with some of my old colleagues, everyone always turns up exactly on time.”
Hisako Ueno of The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.