Photo/IllutrationSeats turned 90 degrees at Keisei Aoto Station in Tokyo’s Katsushika Ward (Ayateru Hosozawa)

  • Photo/Illustraion

To prevent drunken people falling off platforms or being hit by trains, railway operators across Japan are turning benches at their stations sideways to the tracks.

The move is driven by a study that showed that moving them perpendicular to tracks could be the difference between life and death for passengers who have had one too many.

West Japan Railway Co. (JR West)’s Safety Research Institute examined security camera footage in 2014 of 136 inebriated people who fell onto the tracks and made contact with trains.

It found that 60 percent fell after suddenly standing up from benches and elsewhere and then heading straight toward the tracks. The result shattered the common notion that most such accidents are caused by people standing or walking too close to the platform's edge.

About 25 percent of the accident victims, the second largest number, stood or sat motionless on the edge of platforms and then fell, while only 15 percent tottered and lost their footing.

“The results were contrary to our initial expectations but made us realize that turning benches could lead to the reduced number of fall accidents,” said Kensuke Kawakami, a JR West section chief who was involved in the research.

According to the transport ministry, drunken passengers accounted for nearly 70 percent of 2,863 individuals who fell from platforms at stations throughout the nation in fiscal 2017.

Station benches are normally installed parallel to platforms, but rail operators are moving them so the seats are perpendicular to tracks.

JR West, inspired by the findings, began relocating benches in 2015 and finished turning seats at 372 stations by the end of March this year.

That means more than 60 percent of its stations in the Keihanshin area around Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe now have reinstalled benches.

The tactic has proven effective in preventing passengers’ falls, JR West officials said.

Other rail operators in the Kansai region in western Japan, including Osaka Metro Co., Kintetsu Railway Co., Hankyu Corp. and Keihan Electric Railway Co., have followed suit.

The move has also spread among railways in eastern regions.

Benches have been turned at Kanayama Station along the Nagoya municipal subway’s Meijo Line, while Seibu Railway Co., Keio Corp., Odakyu Electric Railway Co. and Tobu Railway Co. have repositioned seats on platforms in the Tokyo metropolitan area.

Tobu Railway has moved benches at eight terminal stations, such as Shinrinkoen Station in Namegawa, Saitama Prefecture, close to Tokyo, and Minami-Kurihashi Station in Kuki in the same prefecture.

“We give priority to changing the benches at last stops because many inebriated passengers who have gone past their destinations wind up there,” said a Tobu Railway official.

In February, Keisei Electric Railway Co. started positioning seats on platforms perpendicular to its tracks.

Benches are being reinstalled first at stations where a lot of accidents involving drunken people have been reported. By the end of March, the seating disposition had been improved at eight stations, including Aoto Station in Tokyo’s Katsushika Ward, and Keisei Chiba Station in Chiba’s Chuo Ward.

“Benches will be repositioned at all stations except ones that can't be relocated because of the platforms’ designs,” said a Keisei Electric Railway official.

Another reason behind rail companies’ quick move to improve their seating arrangements is lower construction costs.

Installing safety gates is said to be the most effective measure to prevent falls from platforms, but most private railway companies had only introduced them at a few of their stations as of the end of fiscal 2017, data released by the transport ministry shows.

That is in marked contrast to many subways and newer transportation system operators that are moving actively to set up platform screen doors across Japan.

“Building platform doors costs more than 1 billion yen ($9.18 million) per station, but simply turning seats requires only hundreds of thousands of yen,” said an official of a leading private railway firm in the Kanto region. “It's easy to reposition benches as the second best countermeasure.”

Still, some rail operators are committed to introducing the pricey gates.

East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) is planning to set up the safety gear at all 330 major stations in the Tokyo metropolitan area by fiscal 2032, while Tokyo Metro Co. has said it will raise its platform barrier introduction rate from 67 percent at the end of fiscal 2018 to 100 percent by the end of fiscal 2025.

Tokyu Corp. also intends to erect screen doors at all 77 stations along its Toyoko, Denentoshi, Oimachi and Meguro lines by the end of this fiscal year.

“Safety gates will be highly effective in preventing anyone from falling, not just those who have had too much to drink,” said a Tokyu official.