MARCH 14 this year marked two important milestones for JR East: the opening of Japan's newest high-speed line, the Hokuriku Shinkansen to Kanazawa on the north coast of Honshu, and the entry into service of a new 3.6km north-south link in the centre of Tokyo between Ueno and Tokyo stations.

The Hokuriku Shinkansen extends high-speed services from Nagano via Toyama to Kanazawa and is being operated jointly with JR West as it crosses the boundary between the two railways at Jyoetsu-Myoko. "The extension to Kanazawa will boost our revenue by Yen 30bn ($US 241.5m)," Mr Tetsuro Tomita, president and CEO of JR East, told IRJ in Tokyo.

Hokuriku Shinkansen trains are expected to reach Tsuruga when the extension west from Kanazawa is completed in 2022. In the meantime JR East is preparing for the opening next March of a northern extension of the Tohuku Shinkansen from Shin-Aomori through the Seikan Tunnel, which is being converted to dual gauge, to Shin-Hakodate on Hokkaido.

JRThe new central Tokyo 1067mm-gauge link was constructed above the Tohoku Shinkansen and connects the Tokaido Line, which terminated at Tokyo main station, with the Tohoku, Takasaki and Joban lines, which terminated at Ueno. The link enables Joban Line Limited Express trains to reach the major interchange at Shinagawa south of Tokyo, while all Tokaido suburban trains can now operate onto the Tohoku or Takasaki lines.

Completion of these major projects will help to maintain the modest rates of growth that the railway has managed to achieve despite a long period of economic stagnation, from which Japan is starting to recover, as well as the effects of an ageing and shrinking population. "The Japanese economy was in recession but despite that traffic has been growing, especially in Tokyo," Tomita explained. "Last year, we had a 1.5% increase in traffic overall, but it is impossible to have high growth with the population declining, so I will be happy if we can maintain traffic volume."

JR East has been steadily increasing capital investment since 2013 and this is set to continue. It invested Yen 404.4bn in the 2013 financial year which ended on March 31, and Yen 422.1bn in 2015, and this is set to increase to Yen 455bn in the current financial year. JR East says it plans to spend Yen 1.6 trillion between now and 2018, of which Yen 600bn is to improve safety and Yen 600bn to encourage growth. The proportion of spending devoted to non-rail activities has been rising steadily from Yen 46.3bn in 2013 to Yen 89bn this year as JR East tries to diversify into other sectors such as commercial activities at stations, shopping centres and offices.

The railway currently forecasts an increase in total revenue from Yen 2.76 trillion in fiscal 2015 to Yen 2.9 trillion by 2018, with transport income rising from Yen 1.85 trillion to Yen 1.95 trillion during the same period. Consolidated operating income is expected to grow from Yen 427.5bn in 2015 to Yen 463bn in 2018.

The Great East Japan earthquake on March 11 2011 and the resulting tsunami caused serious disruption to services, loss of traffic and widespread damage - particularly to conventional lines - from which JR East is still recovering. A major portion of its "Ever Onward" strategy unveiled in October 2012 and updated in 2014 is focused on measures to mitigate the impact of major earthquakes and restore conventional lines along the Pacific Coast, with an eye to building railways capable of withstanding natural disasters.

Services were restored between Takagimachi and Rikuzen-Ono on the Senseki Line on May 30. JR East is currently running buses instead of trains between Tatsuta and Haranomachi on the Joban Line and hopes to resume train operations in spring 2017, but train services within a 20km radius of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station can only be restored when evacuation orders have been lifted.

Elsewhere, JR East is holding discussions with the national and local governments and coordinating its efforts with other plans to rebuild the area as a whole and develop towns.

In preparation for a possible earthquake directly beneath the Tokyo metropolitan area and other seismic events, the railway is reinforcing viaduct columns, bridge piers, embankments, cutings, brick arch viaducts, and catenary, as well as taking measures to prevent station and platform ceilings and walls from collapsing.

Important objective

Another important objective is to improve reliability. Here equipment is being installed to prevent snow from disrupting train services in the Tokyo area and on the Shinkansen network, while steps are being taken to make the railway more resilient to natural disasters such as flooding.

As part of JR East's overall objective of steadily improving safety, half-height platform screen doors are being installed at Ueno, Akihabara, and three other stations on the circular Yamanote Line, one of the busiest commuter lines in Tokyo, which carries around 3.8 million passengers a day.

A number of new trains are being developed. In March JR East unveiled its new generation E235 EMU for the Yamanote Line. The prototype 11-car train will enter passenger service in the autumn and JR East plans to introduce production trains from 2018 onwards.

The 1.5kV dc trains will be formed of five unpowered and six powered vehicles, which will be equipped with VVVF traction inverters. The E235s will also be the first trains in the JR East fleet to be fitted with oil-free compressors.

The E235 features internal and external styling by industrial designer Mr Ken Okuyama, who has previously designed cars for Porsche, Ferrari, and Maserati.

JR East plans to introduce its series E353 pre-production EMUs on Chuo Line Limited Express services, while new series E233 EMUs are planned for the Nambu Line.

JR East invited bids in May for a fleet of series E129 electric-diesel trains comprising 19 single units and 44 two-car sets. It plans to introduce the trains in the Niigata area between 2018 and 2020 and in the Akita and Aomori areas in 2021. JR East also intends to purchase between 97 and 187 additional trains of the same design separately. Suppliers will be expected to adopt technologies it has already developed. The traction motors will be powered by electrical generators and diesel engines.

In order to boost tourism, JR East plans to introduce what it describes as "fun-to-ride" trains. Coaches are being remodelled in preparation for the start in spring 2016 of the Genbi Shinkansen, a mobile art-cafe.

Several major station projects are currently underway including the Shinjuku new south exit building which is scheduled to open in spring 2016; the Sendai station free passage and east exit development; and the large-scale development of stations at Yokohama, Chiba, Shinagawa, and Shibuya. The Chuo Line Mall scheme involves redeveloping the space beneath the railway viaduct between Mitaka and Tachikawa on the Chuo Line. "Around one-third of our revenue is from non-rail sources and we think this will grow more in the future," says Tomita.

JR East is striving to secure its own stable power supply by renewing the Kawasaki thermal power station and other facilities, and plans to install new renewable energy facilities and electricity storage devices.

This is one of Tomita's key objectives for the future, as he explains: "Safety is our first priority, but after that we want to provide a stable service, and comfort for our passengers so that even if the decline in population continues we can maintain our rail revenue."