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Japan quake prompts concern over trains

(The Associated Press circulated the following article on October 26.)

TOKYO -- 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's easy to imagine a disaster: The train carried 151 passengers and was cruising at 125 miles per hour on an overpass when the tremor hit.

``The situation could have been worse,'' Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said 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.''

Indeed, speculation was high on Monday that the train was saved from overturning because it was an older, slower and heavier model. Newer versions have cars 30 percent lighter and travel up to 185 miles an hour.

In a nation of clogged highways, Japan's 1,480 miles of bullet train tracks provide a lightening 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.

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 centered 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 on Monday.

The derailing, however, was clearly a shock to a nation 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.

``We must take it seriously that the `safety myth' of bullet trains, that they are safe even in a big earthquake..., was shaken,'' the Mainichi newspaper said in an editorial on Monday.

Commentators urged bullet train operators to inspect the safety system, investigate possible negligence and consider introducing seat belts for passengers and guardrails to block derailments.

It was still unclear whether the focus on safety would affect the hallmark of the bullet trains: speed. An experimental magnetically levitated Japanese train set a record of 353 mph in a test last year.

And Japanese travelers weren't about to give up on the swift convenience of bullet trains just yet.

``I'm not concerned at all,'' said Hiroshi Umino, 56, as he bought a bullet train ticket at Tokyo Station. ``Japan is an earthquake-prone country, and you never know when one will happen -- I can't always be worried about it.''

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

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