Sunday, March 23, 2014

Should Trains Always Run on Time?

For the millions of people who travel regularly by rail, delays are a favourite topic of complaint. Running to a timetable, we expect trains to be on time and we often become annoyed when they aren't. However, what if expecting trains to run on time was actually a dangerous idea?

This question was the focus of a thought-provoking documentary recently aired on the BBC. Brakeless: Why Trains Crash recounted the 2005 derailment of a West Japan Railway commuter train and the corporate and national culture that led the driver to ignore the posted speed limit. Dreading the reaction of his superiors when they heard of his train's 80 second delay, the driver sped through a tight corner, which threw the train off the track and into an adjacent building. In a system where any delay of more than one second needed to be reported, no wonder the driver panicked about 80.

The home of the Shinkansen (Bullet Train), Japan has long prided itself on having the fastest and most punctual trains in the world. This led to an obsessive corporate culture that was not only toxic to employees, but deadly to railway crew and passengers alike. The derailment began a discussion about the place of punctuality in Japanese culture which continues today.

This is not, however, solely a Japanese problem. People all over the world complain about their trains being late. Many railway companies offer refunds to delayed passengers. Have we all forgotten the old adage "better late than never?" I am not advocating a culture of poor timekeeping or laziness, but how many things are truly so critical that you cannot afford for your train to be a little late?

Technological determinism pushed us to go faster. Electronics schedule our lives and we always seem to be rushing around. Perhaps life doesn't need to be so fast. After all, who would want to die to save a few seconds?

The documentary offers a very critical perspective on Japanese railway culture and also offers a very personal account of how survivors are coping in the wake of the derailment. At times emotional, this documentary is an interesting watch for those interested in railways, Japan, or the speed of the modern world.

Brakeless: Why Trains Crash is available on BBC iPlayer until April 7.