(c) 2013, The Yomiuri Shimbun.

(c) 2013, The Yomiuri Shimbun.

TOKYO The transport ministry plans to embark on more stringent inspections for railway companies after Hokkaido Railway Co.'s slipshod maintenance procedures were brought to light, sources have said.

Under the current railway inspection system of the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, a team of about 180 ministry officials staffed around a core of 32 railway safety inspectors normally conducts screenings of about 200 railway companies about every five years.

Railway safety inspectors are stationed at the ministry's main office and nine District Transport Bureaus across the country.

The ministry's technical officials are sent for routine railway checks as they are well versed in four fields carriage mechanisms; operation; engineering technology for tracks and other components; and signals and other electrical installations.

The ministry plans to increase the number of railway safety inspectors to improve its safety screening measures, in which checks are currently based on a random sampling of operational records.

Ministry officials with technical expertise once served concurrently as inspectors.

After a fatal derailment occurred on West Japan Railway Co.'s Fukuchiyama Line in Amagasaki in April 2005, the ministry reinforced its inspection system.

In fiscal 2006, the ministry created a new post for safety inspectors specializing in railway companies. Mainly with such experts, the ministry conducts regular and special safety inspections. The latter type is conducted only when a problem arises.

About 150 technical officials of the ministry work together with the safety inspectors. However, in the case of regular inspections, only a few inspectors are sent to a single railway company.

Although the ministry has increased its visits to railway companies that frequently experience problems, only about 50 train operators undergo inspections each year.

Since it is difficult to check all operational records of such large-scale firms as JR companies during a single inspection, the ministry generally checks for problems based on a random selection of routes and operational records.

Since a JR Hokkaido limited express train derailed and a fire occurred in May 2011, the ministry has so far conducted inspections on the railway operator three times, including a special safety inspection.

However, it failed to discover that the company's tracks, which had widened beyond the safety limit, were left unrepaired at 267 locations.

A senior ministry official said there are limits to what the ministry can do under the current system. "If the number of samples is small, we may not notice existing problems," he said.

On Saturday, the ministry, which had completed a special safety inspection on JR Hokkaido, said the railway operator violated a ministerial ordinance based on the Railway Operations Law as it left the rail defects unrepaired.

The ministry plans to conduct a close examination of reports based on the questioning of JR Hokkaido President Makoto Nojima and other top officials.