Resolving Japan’s 2,600 railroad crossings with no active warning devices to be urged

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A railroad crossing where a fatal accident occurred in 2019 is seen in Hitachi-Naka, Ibaraki Prefecture, on Nov. 16.

As about 2,600 railroad crossings across Japan still have neither gates nor active warning devices, a recommendation will be made to address the inadequate measures for this dangerous situation, The Yomiuri Shimbun has learned.

The recommendation will be made by the Administrative Evaluation Bureau of the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry. The bureau has the authority to evaluate the policies of ministries and agencies to make recommendations and request subsequent reports.

Since the main cause of this situation is the financial difficulties of railroad operators, the bureau plans to ask for more support for the operators and encourage them to reach a consensus with the communities that oppose the abolition of such crossings.

These dangerous crossings do not meet the current safety standards for railroads. The government and railway operators are working to abolish them or upgrade them to crossings with gates and active warning devices. As of the end of March 2020, there were 2,603 crossings of this type nationwide. This figure is about 8% of all crossings, but 29 accidents at these crossings accounted for 13.7% of the 211 accidents at crossings nationwide in the fiscal year starting April 2019.

According to a survey of railway operators including Japan Railway companies, the number of such crossings has not decreased, especially on regional railroad lines, and many of the operators cited financial difficulties as the reason. A number of respondents said they could not get rid of a crossing because they were concerned about residents who object to it.

Based on the law, the central and local governments subsidize up to five-sixths of the cost for crossing improvements, but the subsidy is limited to crossings that intersect major roads managed by the central government or municipalities. There are many crossings for which the subsidy cannot be used, such as those intersecting agricultural or forest roads.

Barely maintaining line

On a road leading from a residential area to farmland in Semboku, Akita Prefecture, is a crossing barely wide enough for one car to pass through. There is no gate nor active warning device.

In June 2019, an Akita Nairiku Line train hit a rice-planting machine on the crossing and the 80-year-old man driving it was killed. He was believed to have been on his way to his farm and had not noticed the approach of the train.

The victim’s 78-year-old wife said, “If there had been a system to warn people of an approaching train, he would not have tried to cross.”

Akita Nairiku Jukan Tetsudo Railway Co. is barely able to maintain the line with subsidies from the central and prefectural governments. The company gave up the idea of installing gates or active warning systems because they would cost ¥70 million to ¥80 million, including the installation of power lines. The only measure taken so far has been to paint the area in front of the crossing yellow to warn people.

Lack of subsidies

At a similar crossing in Hitachi-Naka, Ibaraki Prefecture, a train collided with a light truck in May 2019. The 76-year-old local woman who was driving the truck was killed. The quasi-public operator of Hitachinaka Seaside Railway has indicated that it plans to abolish the crossing, but this has not happened, as many residents are demanding that it remain in operation.

The crossing is located in a rural area and is frequently used by tractors and light trucks during the busy farming season in spring and autumn. There are four other similar crossings in the surrounding area, but no progress has been made in the discussions between the railway operator and residents.

“If the crossing is taken away, we will have to take a considerable detour, which will interfere with our farm work,” said a 68-year-old man from the area.

The company and the local government have painted the inside area of the crossing orange and installed an X-shaped sign indicating the existence of the crossing and a sign saying “Stop.”

There are 24 such crossings along the Echizen Railway line running through Fukui Prefecture, but in many cases, improvement has been delayed due to a lack of subsidies. These crossings are being considered for abolition, but it is said to be difficult to obtain the consent of local residents.

“Financial support is necessary, but resources are limited,” said Seiji Abe, a professor at Kansai University who focuses on the safety of traffic and transportation. “The central government needs to provide detailed support, starting with the most feasible measures.”