Disability Elderly Japan Kobe Travel

Wheelchair user’s death at a Kobe railway station further highlights lack of accessibility

“The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, there were 3,673 ‘platform falls’ in 2014.”

By Barrier Free Japan

September 18th 2018

A 73-year-old man using an electric wheelchair at a railroad crossing on the Hankyu Kobe Line in Kobe City died on the evening of September 16th as a train hit him. The police said that he was not able to traverse the railroad crossing.

Hirokazu Mukai (73) who lived near the railway crossing of the Hankyu Kobe line of Naka-dori Nada ward, Kobe City, was hit by a train around 7:15 pm on September 16th. It appears that he had tried to cross the railway tracks after the safety barrier had moved up, allowing him to pass, but was unable to cross before the barrier descended. Mukai was pronounced dead at hospital.

Whilst this was sad incident rather than a death that occurred through abuse or neglect, it highlights the difficulties the elderly and the disabled face, especially when trying to navigate through the overcrowded country that is Japan. The safety barriers at such stations can often ascend – which indicates you can cross – only to descend a few seconds later, before even a non-disabled pedestrian could reasonably be expected to have traversed the crossing without sprinting to make it to the other side.

The incident recalls a previous another sad occurrence from August 2016, when a 55 year old blind man fell on to the tracks at Aoyama-itchome Subway Station in Tokyo, another death that could have been prevented if reasonable accommodations – in that case by there being safety barriers in operation – had been made.

To give such tragedies a context, according to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, there were 3,673 ‘platform falls’ in 2014 (not all resulting in death). That is an increase from the 2,442 incidents in 2009 and of those who fell in 2014, 80 were visually impaired. A survey of 252 visually impaired people by the Tokyo-based Japan Federation of the Blind in 2011, found that about 40 percent had experienced a platform fall in their lifetime. About 60 percent said they had experienced close calls. Many cited disorientation as one of the causes.

The Japanese government is attempting to do something to help prevent such incidents in time for the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. As early as 2011, the government had asked railway companies to prioritize the installation of platform barriers with doors at stations serving more than 100,000 people a day. From fiscal year 2011, the government also started subsidizing 30 percent of the installation cost.

The Transport Ministry hopes to increase the number of stations with automated safety gates to 800 from the current 665 by 2020, when Tokyo will host the Olympic and Paralympic Games. But that’s no easy task, given the massive cost and technical difficulties presented by some stations. According to a transport ministry official, installation can cost anywhere from several hundred million to billions of yen. In addition, given the different types of cars in service, not all doors open in the same spots, making synchronization with the gates a problem.

The government also aims to improve the general accessibility of railway stations in time for 2020. In April 2018, the government announced its target of achieving full barrier-free access at major train stations, bus terminals and airports for the disabled ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

The step-free access rate at such facilities with more than 3,000 daily users on average stood at 87.2 percent in the year through March 2017. By March 2021, the government aims to boost it to 100 percent. The country also eyes raising the proportion of low-floor buses and other vehicles to 70 percent by March 2021 from 53.3 percent in the year ended March 2017, according to a five-year plan from April for people with disabilities adopted Friday. In the plan, the government vows to create an easily accessible environment and promote urban planning for them.

However, it is worth pointing out that similar plans were announced by the then Tokyo Governor, Yoichi Masuzoe in 2013, and that the plans announced in 2018 seem to be very similar to those announced in 2013. Hopefully, the government will improve access in time for the 2020 Games to help prevent such incidents from happening, or as Hiroshi Oda, Head of the National Counsel of the Visually Disabled in Japan puts it:

“I really do hope the government will prioritize spending money to beef up such safety measures.”

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