Last week, a 36-year-old bullet train driver temporarily left the cockpit of the train carrying 160 passengers and traveling at 150 kilometers per hour near Tokyo. He said he had stomach pains and couldn’t bring himself to stop the vehicle before going to the bathroom, as guidelines recommend, because he wanted to arrive on time.
The three-minute bathroom break has since gotten him in trouble and ignited a debate over the pressure to be right on schedule in a country renowned for punctuality.
Japanese users on Twitter have expressed sympathy for the driver, acknowledging he was “only human.”
“I feel bad for him. Humans need to go to the bathroom, right? Sometimes you just can’t help it. And the stops between each station are long,” one user said.
“If a driver just needs to pee, then maybe wearing a diaper would be okay. But if they need to take a shit, I bet the smell would be difficult to deal with,” another user said. “I feel sorry for the driver if he gets fired over this.”
Some people expressed fear over the driver’s actions. “This is scary… Is there an autopilot system on bullet trains? This seems like an impossible game. What about they wear suits that come with diapers? I want the driver to be aware that passengers’ lives are in his hands,” one Twitter user said.
At a press conference on Friday, Masahiro Hayatsu, a senior official at train operator Central Japan Railway Company, apologized for the driver’s actions, Japanese news agency Kyodo News reported.
The company’s rules state that drivers must contact their command center if they feel unwell while driving. They are allowed to stop the train or ask a qualified conductor to take over the controls.
But the driver, who has not been identified, said he dared not stop the car because he did not want to cause a delay. Instead, he asked the train conductor, who wasn’t qualified to operate the vehicle, to monitor the train while he rushed to the bathroom.
A spokesperson at train operator Central Japan Railway Company told VICE World News that the driver’s actions were “extremely inappropriate, and both parties will be dealt with strictly.”
The train company said it was the first time a driver left the cockpit of a moving train with passengers onboard in the company’s 34-year history. Both men could be penalized for their action, the company said on Thursday.
Japanese bullet trains are renowned for being highly efficient and safe, having never reported a fatal crash or derailment in the 57 years since they entered operations.
A Japanese railway company made headlines in 2017 when they apologized for a train departing 20 seconds earlier than scheduled.
The Japanese public takes punctual trains for granted. In the unlikely event that a train is more than five minutes late, passengers can ask the train company for certificates to excuse themselves for being late to work or school.
For railway workers, the pressure to be on time has pushed some to resort to extreme measures despite their physical needs.
In 2016, a train driver in his 50s opened his cockpit door to urinate on the platform minutes before supposed departure from Sakura Station in Chiba Prefecture. The man said he was torn: he feared being late for work if he went to the bathroom, but also could not concentrate on driving with a full bladder, the Asahi Shimbun reported.
One employee of Central Japan Railway Company also recalled to the Japanese newspaper that because bullet train routes are usually longer than normal lines, some drivers prepare diapers in case they couldn’t hold it.
But some have questioned why the railway operator doesn’t ensure that every train comes with a second qualified operator on board.
The company said some train conductors are qualified to operate the train.
The operation of Japan’s bullet trains is largely computerized, with minimal human intervention required. Train pilots are tasked with largely ensuring smooth travel. Drivers start the train and monitor a train’s path, making sure there are no abnormalities during travel.
The country is also developing and testing driverless bullet trains that will be remotely piloted.
Update: This story has been updated with comments from a spokesperson at train operator Central Japan Railway Company.