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Question on bullet trains' safety



Workers on Sunday inspect a bullet train that was knocked off the rails by a 6.8-magnitude quake on Richter Scale in Nagaoka, northwest of Tokyo, on Saturday. — AP

TOKYO, OCT. 25. For four decades, Japan's high-speed ``bullet'' trains have moved millions of people through this earthquake-prone nation efficiently, at high speed and without a single derailment — until now.

The 6.8-magnitude quake that ravaged northern Japan on Saturday knocked the ``Toki No. 325'' bullet train off its tracks, jarring transport officials and prompting a full-scale reassessment of the safety of Japan's advanced railway system.

The derailment on the line between Tokyo and Niigata caused no injuries, but it is easy to imagine a disaster: the train carried 151 passengers and was cruising at 200 kph per hour on an overpass when the tremor hit.

``The situation could have been worse,'' the Chief Cabinet Secretary, Hiroyuki Hosoda, said on Monday. ``We need to find out if this could have been prevented and what should be done because ... there could have been a major accident.''

Disaster averted

Indeed, speculation was high on Monday that the train was saved from overturning because it was an older, slower and heavier model. Newer versions are 30 per cent lighter and travel up to 300 kph.

In a nation of clogged highways, Japan's 2,387 km of bullet train tracks provide a lightning fast and enormously popular way of getting around. An average of nearly 775,000 people ride them every day.

The trains are clearly a point of pride for Japanese. Some of the newer trains have ``Ambitious Japan'' written on huge letters on their sides.

Begun in 1964 to coincide with another milestone, Tokyo's hosting of the Summer Olympics, the trains benefit from state-of-the-art earthquake protection.

Safety mechanism

Seismographic monitors along tracks can detect the faint rumblings that precede a full earthquake. The mechanism shuts off electricity to the trains, triggering automatic brakes that stop the cars before the force of the quake hits. That system, however, is less well-equipped to deal with the novel case on Saturday: a quake that is centred very close to the tracks.

``This is a quake that we hadn't anticipated — the quake hit directly under the train with vertical shaking,'' said Yukio Kato, assistant director of the transport division of East Japan Railway Co., which runs the line that derailed.

``How to deal with a such a direct quake is the issue we have to tackle in the future,'' he said. The Government reacted quickly to the derailment, with the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport dispatching engineers to assess the damage and setting up a task force.

The agency's Vice-Minister, Satoshi Iwamura, promised a thorough investigation, though no specific proposals have been seriously floated yet.

The derailing, however, was clearly a shock to a nation long accustomed to assuming the safety of its rail system. Images of the white and blue train — which skidded off to one side of the tracks but remained on the overpass — were featured repeatedly on TV broadcasts and newspaper front pages. — AP

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