Japan’s pristine bullet train safety record derailed by crack, oil leak

File photo of a "shinkansen" bullet train in Japan.
File photo of a "shinkansen" bullet train in Japan.PHOTO: JAKUB HALUN

TOKYO – In a blight on the bullet train’s track record of zero safety problems, a crack and an oil leak were found on a Japanese shinkansen that was pulled out of service midway on Monday (Dec 11).

But the early discovery means Japan maintained its record of no fatalities nor injuries to passengers of the shinkansen since it began operations in 1964. 

Still, the Japan Transport Safety Board, in announcing an inquiry on Wednesday (Dec 13), used the label “serious incident” for the first time.

The shinkansen service Nozomi 34 had suffered a “structural anomaly” that measured more than 10cm, the board said. It could have led to a deadly high-speed derailment.

Experts, however, were sanguine that it would not affect Japan’s international bids for major high-speed rail projects.

Dr Martin Schulz, a corporate governance expert from the Fujitsu Research Institute, told The Straits Times: “Japan has an unchallenged record of accident-free, high-speed train operations, and this incident fortunately did not break the safe run because it was discovered in time.”

He added: “I very much doubt it will have any negative impact on Japan’s overseas railway projects, which often are decided by complex policy considerations, and not just quality and cost-performance concerns.”

Nozomi 34 begins its eastbound five-hour journey from Hakata station in downtown Fukuoka in the southwest, and ends at the central Tokyo station. The journey also covers the Osaka-Tokyo route that is Japan’s busiest.

Monday’s incident occurred despite no abnormalities being found during a sight inspection by rail operator West Japan Railway (more commonly known as JR West) the day before.

No irregularities were also uncovered during a Nov 30 check on the train’s motors, nor in February when parts were dissembled and the chassis and wheels separated for a thorough examination.

But the news is a further blow to Japan Inc’s reputation for safety and reliability, following a spate of corporate governance and quality control scandals.

In a revelation that shook Japan in October, Kobe Steel confessed to faking data about the strength and durability of some aluminium and copper products.

Although the steelmaker supplied substandard parts to bullet train operators, no direct causation has been found between the Nozomi 34 incident and the Kobe Steel scandal.

The compromised material, which had tensile strength below industry standards, did not pose any safety risk, JR West and JR Central (Central Japan Railway Co) had said.

The Monday incident arose when the crew of Nozomi 34 noticed a burning smell at Kokura station in Fukuoka, minutes after leaving the Hakata terminal station at 1.33pm.

A maintenance crew boarded the train at Okayama station in western Japan. They reported an “abnormal motor sound”, but judged that this would not affect train operations and decided to continue the service.

The burning odour was detected again at 4.20pm as the train neared Kyoto and it was decided to pull the train from service at 5pm  when an oil leak was found at Nagoya station. This was three and a half hours after it had departed from Hakata.

About 1,000 passengers were affected, JR West said. The 16-carriage bullet train has a capacity for 1,323 passengers.

Local media reports said “abnormal pressure” might have damaged the couplings between the motors and the wheels, which were found to be slightly discoloured, as if charred. A crack was also found on the steel frame beneath the fourth carriage.

The Japan Transport Safety Board said a damaged steel frame would have affected the wheel shafts and, in turn, could have led to the train’s derailment.

JR West had carried out an emergency probe into 129 other undercarriages manufactured at the same time as Nozomi 34, and had found no irregularities.

Meanwhile, a separate probe for bid-rigging is ongoing into three contractors involved in projects for Japan’s maglev (magnetic levitation train), the next-generation bullet train line that will connect Tokyo to Osaka.

Among those implicated are Obayashi Corp, one of Japan’s “Big Four” construction companies. A JR Central official is suspected of providing inside information to the constructor, which is alleged to have given it an advantage over its rivals.