April 28, 2011

JR East determined to resume services on all lines

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Mitsuo Higashi, director of JR East’s international department, recounts the huge damage inflicted on the railway by the massive earthquake and tsunami of March 11 and JR East’s resolve to get rail services back to normal as quickly as possible.
ON the afternoon of March 11, a huge earthquake of magnitude 9, the largest ever recorded in Japan, followed by a catastrophic tsunami, hit the Tohoku and Kanto regions and wreaked enormous destruction to JR East's rail network. It is extremely painful for JR East managers to write about their tragic experiences only a month later, but I believe it is vital to provide IRJ's readers around the world with an up-to-date account of what happened and our response to this disaster.

We operate about 310 Shinkansen trains a day. Our seismometer at Kinkazan, one of nine along the Pacific coast, was the first to detect the earthquake-induced tremor. It sent an automatic stop signal to the Tohoku Shinkansen electric power transmission system which activated emergency braking on all 33 trains in operation 12-15 seconds prior to the first massive earthquake. As none of the 27 trains carrying passengers suffered a derailment, we believe by the time the largest earthquake hit Tohoku Shinkansen trains, even those running at the maximum line speed of 275km/h had, in theory, successfully reduced their speed down to 60-70km/h.

JR East has an early-warning earthquake detection system in which seismometers are installed at 97 locations in our operating area. When the seismometers detect earthquake-induced tremors (primary wave and secondary wave), they calculate the expected effect of the earthquake, and send out warning signals to cut power transmission to the Shinkansen. In the case of this massive earthquake, the Kinkazan seismometer immediately detected the primary wave, but the warning sent out from the secondary wave was 0.5 seconds earlier.

We are not exactly sure of the true reason for this phenomenon, but it could be a feature of this massive earthquake in which three consecutive huge destruction events took place one after another almost at the same time at the same earthquake centre. We will conduct detailed analysis of the shape of the waves of the massive earthquake, and continue to improve the functions of our early-warning earthquake detection system.

A Shinkansen train running under test without passengers was approaching Sendai, when two of its wheelsets derailed immediately before it was brought to a stop by the emergency braking. We will analyse why it derailed at such a low speed.

A great amount of damage of various kinds was caused in more than 1200 places, mainly on the Tohoku Shinkansen. A particular feature of the earthquake damage was the large number of cases of broken, leaning, or cracked electrification masts (in about 540 places) and severed power lines (in around 470 places) over a wide area.

We believe this could have been caused by the phenomenon that the wavelength of the massive earthquake might have coincided with the natural inherent frequency of the electrification masts. Fortunately, since their foundations on elevated structures have a certain degree of flexibility, our recovery work has been carried out on schedule. As for the catenary, serious damage such as breaks in the contact wires were rare, and most damage was minor, such as breaks in sub-messenger wires and auto transformer protection wires.

No critical destruction was caused to major structures, such as the collapse of viaduct pillars or tunnels. We believe this is due to the anti-seismic reinforcement work we undertook based on the experience of the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji earthquake (magnitude 7.3) and the 2004 Niigata Chuetsu earthquake (magnitude 6.8).

On the 1067mm-gauge network, five passenger and two freight trains were derailed by the earthquake and tsunami, and 23 stations were washed away by the tsunami.

Fortunately, our station staff and train crews promptly and successfully led passengers to local-government-designated emergency evacuation areas. We believe that this smooth evacuation is a result of the regular training we conducted before the earthquake. Nevertheless, we will continue to improve the quality of our staff training.

Tracks were displaced in 2590 places, and 1150 electrification masts were broken, leaning, or cracked. Overall, damage was inflicted at more than 4400 locations. Fortunately, as with the Shinkansen, no critical damage to major structures was caused because of the anti-seismic reinforcement we had undertaken, and therefore we have been able to carry out the recovery work according to plan, particularly on our main conventional lines.

The March 11 earthquake forced us to cancel, suspend or reduce train operation on most of our 7512.6km network. On the morning of March 12 we were able to resume train operations on some lines, and by the end of the day many lines in the Tokyo metropolitan area were back in service.

The resulting shortage of electricity after the earthquake forced us to reduce the number of trains operating even on lines that did not suffer earthquake damage. But with the subsequent improvement in power supply, we are now almost back to normal in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Although power supply has not totally recovered, the two thermal and hydroelectric power plants that we own are working smoothly and we are putting all our efforts into ensuring reliable railway transport.

As the result of the concerted and devoted recovery efforts by JR East and its associated companies, most of our network was expected to be in operation by the end of April.

However, about 325km of conventional lines suffered extremely serious damage from the tsunami: stations were washed away, and tracks and bridge piers were either washed away or buried. For these heavily-damaged sections, we will develop recovery plans that are consistent with the reconstruction plans of the national and local governments (see diagram).
We are also trying to close our FY 2010 accounts, and we think we will have to post huge increases in costs because of the massive earthquake and catastrophic tsunami. Up to March 10, railway operating revenue was up on the previous year, but for the 21 days in March following the earthquake we saw a huge reduction of 36.1% compared with the same period in the previous year. Although around 30% of our total revenue is earned from non-railway business, when we look at FY 2010 overall, we believe that a reduction in total revenue is inevitable.

Our civil engineering structures such as track facilities are covered by earthquake insurance, with a maximum payout of Yen 71bn ($US 842m). This insurance provides the largest amount of compensation for damage of all insurance policies. We think the earthquake insurance will be applied to the damage caused by the earthquake, but the actual amount of money to be paid will be determined after our actual losses are carefully examined.

Our plan for FY 2011 revenue and expenditure will be worked out on the basis of results for FY 2010. As very significant reductions in revenue and increases in cost are expected, we must be prepared for extremely harsh figures for our revenue and expenditure forecasts for FY 2011. However, by the end of April, train operations should have resumed on most lines, including the entire Shinkansen network, and by pursuing every means available, we will try to stimulate demand for our services. JR East has been in the black for the entire 23 years since it was formed in 1987, and we will continue to improve further towards even more sound management.

In parallel with the recovery work underway, we are collecting various data, and we will do more research into the effect this massive earthquake had on our railway facilities, including the derailment of the Shinkansen train that was running under test at low speed. We will determine the effectiveness of the measures that we have taken, and decide what should be done in the future. We hope these research results will contribute to the development of railways around the world, especially in terms of further improving safety and customer satisfaction.

Fortunately, none of our passengers or our staff on duty that day were killed or suffered serious injury at either our stations or on our trains. Through IRJ, we wish to express our sincere appreciation for the very kind words of condolence and encouragement we have received from our friends around the world.  

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