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HOME  > Past issues  > 2017 April 12 - 18  > 30 years after privatization of Japan National Railway, safety becomes secondary
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2017 April 12 - 18 [POLITICS]

30 years after privatization of Japan National Railway, safety becomes secondary

April 11, 2017
It has been 30 years since the Japan National Railway (JNR) was privatized into seven Japan Railway (JR) groups. The government at that time argued that the privatization would enhance passengers’ convenience, but what happened in reality was a neglect of safety, Akahata reported on April 11.

The late former Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryutaro was the transport minister when the national railway company was privatized in 1987. In his later years, Hashimoto said, “I sometimes receive a compliment on the privatization of the JNR, but I feel deep regret over the occurrence of the deadly train accident on a JR line (Sankei Shimbun dated December 22, 2005)”.

The accident that Hashimoto referred to occurred in April 2005 on the West Japan Railway Company (JR-West) Fukuchiyama Line in Amagasaki City, Hyogo Prefecture. A train took a curve at too great a speed and derailed, killing 106 passengers and the driver and injuring 562 others. This has been the worst railway accident since the formation of the JR groups.

JR-West did not adhere to the JNR’s safety manifesto which states, “Safety is our primary mission in transportation service.” The private company was trying to maximize the speed of train operations in order to increase profits by winning the competition with rival railway companies. In the JR-West Osaka branch, the branch head proclaimed that the top item of the branch’s target list for 2005 was “to earn” and delayed the installment of safety measures such as an automatic train stop system.

Yoshioka Shogo, a JR-West worker, said that every time he drives a train on the accident site, he bows to mourn the victims of the accident 12 years ago. He stressed that although JR-West lowered train speeds on the Fukuchiyama Line and created a safety charter in the wake of the tragedy, the company still runs trains at high speed on the Tokaido Line which competes against another private railway company.

Hokkaido Railway Company (JR-Hokkaido) is another example of how JR companies are overly enthusiastic in profit-seeking activities. Sato Katsumaro, a former JNR worker who drove a train in Hokkaido, pointed out that the company has neglected its main business of railway service while setting up various subsidiaries to expand its business to various fields from hotel and real estate to restaurant operations. Sato was an officer of the All National Railway Locomotive Engineers’ Union (Zendoro).

When established in 1987, JR-Hokkaido had 13,000 workers, which fell short of the number necessary to run the business. This is because JR-Hokkaido, like other JR groups, refused to hire most of former JNR workers who were members of either Zendoro or the National Railways Workers’ Union (Kokuro). The two unions were opposed to the government plan to privatize and break down the national railway company on the grounds that the plan will not serve the public interest. In Hokkaido, among Zendoro workers, the percentage of those who obtained a job at JR-Hokkaido was less than 30%. In stark contrast, more than 99% of members of a pro-privatization union were rehired by the railway operator.

Sato said, “Suffering from chronic labor shortages, JR-Hokkaido has repeatedly caused accidents and mishaps, posing a risk to passengers’ lives and safety.” A Board of Audit report in November 2016 showed that the number of railway-related workers in JR-Hokkaido stood at 7,150, which is only 56% of the figure 30 years ago.

JR-Hokkaido has shut down a number of local lines that it labeled as “unprofitable”, depriving local residents of public means of transportation. The company in November 2016 announced that 1,200 km of its running railroad lines, about a half of the total, is “commercially unsustainable”. Commenting on this announcement, Honbetsu Town Mayor Takahashi Masao said, “JR-Hokkaido intends to further close down local lines on the pretext of their lack of profitability. It is tantamount to abandoning its role as a public transportation provider.” Honbetsu Town is one of Hokkaido municipalities that suffered the loss of local lines.

Sato said, “The privatization of the JNR caused great suffering to passengers, local residents, and workers. The national government should admit to its responsibility for the suffering. In order to pass the railway network down to the next generations, there is no way other than to have the JR groups change their self-centric stance which gives priority to profit-seeking over safety.”

Past related articles:
> Former JNR workers settle 23-year legal battle over unfair dismissals [June 28, 2010]
> Court condemns discrimination against National Railway Workers’ Union (Kokuro) members [March 26, 2009]
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