Brakeless: Why Trains Crash

I recently fave’d the Storyville series on iPlayer, which appears to be a strand under which BBC Four broadcasts various international documentaries. I happened to spot Brakeless in my queue after having watched the ‘hairy bikers’ gurn, chomp and bike their way around the Far East, followed by anime of questionable morality courtesy of the CrunchyRoll app on my Now TV box.

With a taste for more Japanese curiosities, as well as my interest in railways, I decided to stick Brakeless on. And crikey, what a beautifully made but stomach-churning documentary it is.

Kyoko Miyake’s film tells the story of a catastrophic train crash in Osaka one morning in 2005 from the perspectives of those traveling on it. 107 people died when a commuter train took a corner too fast, derailing and slamming into an apartment building. The shots of the first few carriages crumpled and mangled like a tin can were incredibly disturbing.

It’s staggering to think how something as solid and heavy as a train carriage could compress so much. But far more gut-punching is the thought of that carriage being packed with commuters.

The survivors featured in the film had varying levels of permanent scars, both mental and physical, and each had their own take on how events that morning played out, and how the experience had affected them.

Maybe it’s the traditional Japanese reserve, or the usual way the horrific details of such an accident can often be glossed over, but the detail this film went into with regards to the experience and the injuries was particularly harrowing.

It was never unnecessarily morbid, but the recollections of one survivor in particular were incredibly vivid. An artist, he had created several different artworks to reflect on his experiences, including paintings shot through with red, and a particularly moving piece which used a crushed tin can to represent the carriage seen above.

The film’s narrative was neatly put together, following the course of the journey that morning, alongside the story of Japan’s postwar redevelopment and subsequent yearning for efficiency and speed. This constant push led to train drivers becoming accustomed to taking greater and greater risks.

As one contributor notes, it really was simply an accident waiting to happen. In this case, the driver was under pressure from his bosses – whether direct or indirect – and it’s believed he was speeding around the corner to make up for an earlier delay of just 80 seconds. The consequences for such a lapse in judgement were huge. But they’ve also led to reforms amongst the Japanese rail industry in recent years, including changes to driver training, and a reassessment the need to always striving to be faster.

Brakeless: Why Trains Crash is available on iPlayer for the next fortnight.