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Japan tunnel collapse ignites debate about infrastructure spending

Japan has ordered immediate inspections of dozens of road and highway tunnels after the ceiling of a tunnel near Tokyo collapsed on Sunday, killing nine people. 

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Workers inspect the structure inside the 8.5-kilometer (5.3-mile) Enasan Tunnel on the Chuo Expressway in Achimura, Nagano Prefecture, central Japan, Monday morning. Japan has ordered immediate inspections of dozens of road and highway tunnels after concrete ceiling panels fell onto moving vehicles deep inside another tunnel on the same epressway Sunday, killing nine people.

Kyodo News/AP

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Japan has ordered immediate inspections of dozens of road and highway tunnels after the ceiling of a major tunnel near Tokyo collapsed on Sunday, killing nine people. The tragedy has prompted questions about the state of Japan’s huge network of roads and tunnels, as well as about related public spending as the country prepares for a general election on Dec. 16. 

“It’s going to be a big topic in the election,” says Masahiro Mochizuki, an analyst at Credit Suisse in Tokyo, noting that an investment in roads, bridges, and other infrastructure to coincide with the 1964 Tokyo Olympics had resulted in a modern-day inventory of aging facilities in need of repair.  

“Japanese people totally changed their mindset after last year’s earthquake," he says. "They want to live in a safe environment – that’s their priority. Without investment in infrastructure, the Japanese people can’t go about their lives and the country can’t do business.”

The deaths from the collapse occurred after about 270 slabs of concrete used to aid ventilation became detached from the tunnel’s walls and roof, and crashed on to vehicles below. The accident ignited leaking gasoline, sparking a blaze that sent black smoke billowing out of the tunnel’s entrances.

On Tuesday, police raided the headquarters and other offices of Central Japan Expressway (Nexco Central), which operates the affected stretch of highway about 80 kilometers (50 miles) west of Tokyo.

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