Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Death of wheelchair user at Tokyo railway station has Japan looking at platform slopes

From in Japan:

The recent death of an 81-year-old woman in a wheelchair at a railway station in Tokyo was caused by a platform slope so slight that most passengers would not even notice it.

The woman fell from the platform at Tamagawa Station, of the Tokyu Toyoko Line in Ota Ward, on Sept. 13 and died the next day. Her chair began to roll down the platform after she and her daughter exited an elevator.

The daughter, 61, had just released the grip on the wheelchair to press a "close" button inside the lift so it would quickly return to pick up people waiting on the lower level.

The fatal fall has underscored a danger at heavily used public transportation facilities.

Experts warn that platforms can be dangerous not just for wheelchairs but baby buggies as well, because they are built with a slight slant to stop the pooling of rainwater.

But railway operators have been slow to take preventive steps, such as building barriers and doors on platforms, due in part to the varying designs of train carriages.

According to the operator Tokyu Corp. and police, the victim's wheelchair rolled down the platform for about 5 meters before falling to the tracks 1.2 meters below.

Tokyu says station platforms usually have gentle slopes of about 1 percent--a decline of 1 centimeter to a distance of 1 meter--so rainwater will gently flow off.

But at Tamagawa Station, the angle was a much steeper 2.5 percent to accommodate mild track curvature and the resulting tilt of trains.

In fact, the accident was like deja vu to station workers.

In September 2007, a 95-year-old woman in a wheelchair fell to the tracks after coming out of the same elevator. She survived, but suffered a broken leg.

A family member accompanying her had just let off the grip on the wheelchair when it began to roll down the platform.

Because the relative admitted having forgotten to apply the wheel lock, Tokyu did not take the slope problem seriously, officials said. It merely told station workers to make sure wheelchair users took care.

Tokyo police are looking into Tokyu's responses to the 2007 accident.

"We overlooked the fact that the platform slope was not well known to our customers," said Masafumi Ota, general manager at the Planning and Administration Division of Tokyu's Railway Business Unit.

"We should have taken preventive steps after the accident two years earlier."

This time around, Tokyu quickly installed fences measuring 1.2 meters high and 5.5 meters wide between the elevator in question and the edge of the platform.

It is also building fixed fences at seven more stations on its Toyoko and Denentoshi lines that have platforms sloping more than 2 percent, including Shibuya and Jiyugaoka. The fences are scheduled to be finished by the end of November.

Under the 2000 legislation to improve access to transportation facilities by elderly people and those with disabilities, stations increasingly have elevators and other barrier-free features.

According to the transport ministry's Railway Bureau, about 70 percent of major stations with an average passenger number of 5,000 or more daily had had those easy-access features built as of March.

An ordinance of the ministry says the platform slope should be set at 1 percent for safety of wheelchair users, but allows it to be greater where structural needs dictate.

Wheelchair accidents have occurred at stations with steeper platforms.

According to East Japan Railway Co., a wheelchair user fell from a Kami-Suwa Station platform of the Chuo Line in August 2008 after getting off a train. It had a 1.4-percent decline.

At Ueno-Hirokoji Station of Tokyo Metro Co., a wheelchair began to slide on the platform with a 1.7-percent slope in 2002. Its user was flung to the tracks below and suffered minor injuries.

Tokyo Metro now has fences and other safety equipment at platforms with a decline of 2 percent or greater.

Yoshihiko Kawauchi, an architect and professor of barrier-free design at Toyo University's Faculty of Human Life Design, has used public transportation in a wheelchair for 36 years.

He says even a decline of 1 percent--the transport ministry standard--poses a danger to wheelchair users.

Kawauchi recommends platform doors as the best solution for the problem.

But such doors are difficult to build at stations where trains from different railways stop for extended runs into other lines.

Carriage door locations vary between train models and do not always match door locations on the platforms.

Tokyu says it is difficult to immediately build platform doors on Toyoko Line stations as Tokyo Metro trains with different standards also stop.

The platform at Tamagawa Station in fact has doors on the other side where Tokyu's Meguro Line trains stop as subway trains that also serve on the line are built with the same standards.

"Railway operators must step up efforts to prevent all passengers from falling, including wheelchair users and babies in buggies," Kawauchi said.

Passengers, too, must be better aware that station platforms are a dangerous place, he said.(