Rushing along

May 22, 2005

Investigations into the train accident in Western Japan continue with The NYTimes had an article about a month or go about how the train was going 130kph in a zone with a 70kph speed limit about how the train was leaning along one set of wheels for the last 100 meters before it rammed into the apartment building on the side of the tracks. The NYTimes had an article right after the accident about how the national Japanese obsession with punctuality had to do with the accident.

ABSTRACT - It becomes increasingly clear that 23-year-old driver of train that derailed in Amagasaki, Japan, was speeding when his train jumped track, apparently trying to make up time when train was 90 seconds late; rescue workers continue to try to free passengers trapped inside twisted and crumpled cars; accident causes much soul-searching across country over Japan's attention--some would say obsession--with puncutality and efficiency; to many, driver's single-minded focus on making up 90 seconds seem to reveal weak points of society where trains really do run on time, but where people have lost sight of bigger picture;

My reaction was to ask the NYTimes to kiss my ass, I guess great journalism is all about making easy to digest generalizations for the masses starving for information. If a memo had actually gone out to the Japanese people about being obsessed with time, I missed the damn memo. I've been waiting for painful reforms to hit our country for about a decade now to take us out of this economic malaise, instead the slow, painful torture that is our underperforming economy continues. . .or so I read in the papers. That said, I often feel like me and the people around me are all running real damn hard, just to be at the same place that we are now, the race of life must be being run on a treadmill or an oval track.

I suppose there is an interest in the metropolitan areas of Japan about how long commutes take. Every several months or so, I see an ad by a train company advertising how they had cut a minute or a couple of minutes for getting from point a to point b. The Fukuchiyama line where the accident occurred was also pushing the envelope, JR West (the rail company) was requiring conducters to make like Formula One drivers in order to get from start finish within the designated amount of time. The driver that was in the accident probably didn't believe that the train would derail, but it was probably true that he was under an incredible amount of pressure.

The article is in Japanese but the conducter had just become a conducter last May, in June he was sent to a 'day-shift' education course (union statement here) and when he overran a stop by 100 meters. He overran the stop in order to gain 10 seconds that he had lost at the previous station when a group of elementary school children on a field trip had taken time to board the train. During the 13 days on the program, he was scolded, insulted, wrote 13 reports on what he had done wrong, and got slapped in the face with a cut in his bonus. . .kinda reminds me of detention, but a lot worse, at least I got to do my homework during detention. More information on the coursee:

JR West's reprimand is in the form of the infamous ''day-shift'' where punishment for train drivers include writing reams of self-critical reports, being demoted to weed the company's gardens or apologizing for weeks to managers.

This statement was kind of striking:

Lawyer Masako Shimano, a long-time protector of workers rights, points out the train crash is a terrible eye opener to a growing system in Japan where management often disregards the needs of workers, which in turn leads to accidents -- many of them fatal.</p>

''Globalisation and rapid privatisation coupled with a system in Japan where human rights have long taken low priority, has led to the development of a frightening situation for workers and the lowering of safety standards,'' she said. </strong>

On the Monday before the accident, the driver had overshot a day of the accident, the driver had overrun a stop and caused a 90 second delay. This day, he had overshot a stop by 40 meters and was anxious to make up the delay. . .leading to this accident.

Generally speaking. . .being late to work because of the train being late is not accepted in Japan (and I do agree with this), being late because there was an accident is acceptable. I suppose even the latter was unacceptable at JR West, two employees that were commuting on the train were directed to work as they were still not late, instead of staying at the scene and trying to do something. . .anything.

Being punctual is important, whether it be an appointment, a deadline or a train schedule. I don't think the problem here is a national obsession with being on time, I believe that the problem is setting train schedules that are extremely difficult meet without some reckless driving. Blaming a whole country for the accident by stating that driver's single-minded focus on making up 90 seconds seem to reveal weak points of society where trains really do run on time, but where people have lost sight of bigger picture makes for a sensational statement, but gives the train company an out. . .after all we are all losing sight of the bigger picture. In fact, I believe that the problem lies with the management of a company that decided that chose staying competitive without regarding the safety of customers or employees.

Hopefully, (and I hope about a lot of things these days) this accident has given more companies a chance to really think about what the "bigger picture" is that the NYTimes is mentioning. While I sure don't see the bigger picture now and have probably not seen in it since I left the womb, I'll be sure to mention if and when I catch a glimpse of it.

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