Speeding Up


There was a terrific documentary yesterday, broadcast as part of BBC4TVs Storyville strand,  called Brakeless: Why Trains Crash…

You can watch it on BBCiplayer, or Box of Broadcasts

The film is described, thus

A documentary film exploring one of Japan’s biggest train crashes in modern history, caused when a driver tried to catch up with a delay of just 80 seconds. It’s a cautionary tale of what happens when punctuality, protocol and efficiency are taken to the extreme. On Monday April 25th 2005, a West Japan Railway commuter train crashed into an apartment building and killed 107 people. Just what pressures made the driver risk so much for such a minimal delay?

Piecing together personal accounts of those affected by the train crash, with insights from experts and former train drivers, the film poses a question for a society that equates speed with progress. It offers a fascinating insight into the railway’s role in Japan’s post-war economic boom and the dangers of corner-cutting in the prolonged economic stagnation that followed. Through the lens of this catastrophic train crash, Brakeless considers the ultimate cost efficiency.

John Crace, in today’s Guardian, reviewed the film, thus

Brakeless: Why Trains Crash (BBC4) was something of a misnomer. Rather than being a film about why any train crashes, it was the story of why one Japanese commuter train crashed into an apartment block near Osaka in 2005, killing 107 people. In common with almost every documentary in the Storyville strand, this was a beautifully made piece of television, combining forensic analysis with intensely moving personal testimonies.

The reasons for the crash soon became clear: a fatal obsession with punctuality – not a problem likely to be associated with any British train company; a relentless drive to reduce journey times, regardless of the number of stops or the number of passengers getting on or off the train; a management that bullied drivers who failed to meet their targets; and the lack of an automatic braking system. To put it another way, this train crashed because the driver was running 80 seconds late, thought he was going to get the sack and took a corner too quickly in a bid to make up time.

The desire to make sense of a tragedy and to prevent its repetition is very human. Brakeless achieved all this and more, but such a narrow focus inevitably loses sight of wider truths. Some accidents may be easier to predict than others, but technology and people are not foolproof. One or both will always let you down in the end and when they do, you can only hope the consequences are not so extreme. All the ingredients for a major train crash were in place in Japan long before the Okinawa tragedy. To imagine such a crash will not be repeated is wishful thinking. As long as there are trains, there will be train crashes.

The film demonstrates clearly that the machine-ensemble of the national railway system is a mechanical expression of a society that is accelerating. In general movement is associated with energy and progress. So, speed is positively associated with political economy and social progress. But, there is a brutal cost…

The 108 people who died are simply viewed, by the political elite, as collateral damage.

If you are interested in these ideas, look at Paul Virilio’s Speed and Politics, and at the concepts of railway time, discipline, the machine ensemble, and the annihilation of space and time. I’ve posted about all these…

Incidentally, he same thing is happening in relation to the network connection of the digital economy – they’re speeding up. The internet is solid-state, with no moving parts. So, it should be safer; if no less brutal.

Interestingly, all this speed and movement does actually make people more clever. Consider the Flynn effect…

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