The train disaster in western Japan this week is the deadliest in four decades. The death toll has risen to 91, with bodies still to be retrieved from the wreckage. Although the investigation of what exactly happened is not over yet, it looks increasingly likely that the driver was speeding in order to make up for lost time. He was running 90 seconds late.
Yes, 90 seconds. Anywhere else in the world, a delay of 90 seconds would not be considered such a terrible failure. But in a country that a reported average 6-second delay in the shinkansen (bullet train) schedule last year caused heads to roll and policies to be revised, 90 seconds is an eternity. The Japanese obsession with punctuality, especially when it comes to their world-leading rail system, leaves little room for mistakes.
Almost immediately after the accident, people put the blame on this obsession. The same driver, a 23-year old, was reprimanded a few months ago for missing the platform stop by 100 metres. Apparently he did so again last Monday, hence the lost 90 seconds; it is likely that he wanted to avoid further reprimanding, or worse, a fine. A colleague of mine told me that Japan Rail drivers are fined for delays and the fine is deducted from their salary.
Is this accident going to change something? I doubt it very much. The pride and joy of Japanese industry is not going to be deterred by one accident and, admittedly, such accidents are a rarity in Japan. Furthermore, the obsession with time is not particular to the rail industry; it permeates all levels of Japanese society and is too much ingrained in the mentality of “Industrial Japan” for swift and sudden changes to be possible. When I asked my colleague – after he complained that the stress of a possible fine was probably the cause of the accident – whether he would put up with less punctual trains in return for less stringent rules being imposed on the drivers, he looked at me as if I had lost my mind…