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Economy & Tech

EDITORIAL | JR East Must Find Ways to Shorten Shinkansen Delays

Three Shinkansen lines were halted, forcing passengers to wait for 20 hours. JR East must act flexibly in resuming operations without compromising safety.

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JR Tokyo Station on January 23. (©Kyodo)

On January 23, train traffic on the Tohoku, Joetsu, and Hokuriku Shinkansen lines ground to a halt due to a power outage. It was caused by a problem with an overhead power line in Saitama City just north of Tokyo. 

After the problem surfaced, service was suspended for the entire day between Tokyo and Sendai on the Tokaido Shinkansen Line and between Tokyo and Takasaki on the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line. Approximately 120,000 passengers were affected by the standstill.

The power outage occurred around 10 am on January 23. It happened as the Hokuriku Shinkansen train Kagayaki No 504 bound for Tokyo from Kanazawa was traveling between Omiya in Saitama Prefecture and Ueno Station in Tokyo. 

An overhead wire was dangling for about 150 meters and appears to have come into contact with the Kagayaki's pantograph. That caused the train to come to an emergency stop and unable to move. JR East Japan then had to disembark the approximately 350 passengers onboard and evacuate them to the side of the tracks. 

A shinkansen came to a halt in Saitama City's Chuo Ward, with passengers being directed by staff members to evacuate along the side of the tracks on January 23. (©Kyodo)

Transportation Artery of Japan

The Shinkansen is often referred to as the "main artery of the [Japanese] archipelago." But recently, there have been several instances in which the Shinkansen rail network faced long-term, widespread stoppages. The disruptions were primarily caused by natural disasters, including accidents, earthquakes, and typhoons. 

That was true, for example, during the Obon holiday period in August 2023. Torrential rain caused by Typhoon Lan massively disrupted the Tokaido Shinkansen schedule for three consecutive days, including scheduled suspensions. 

Due to the unforeseen heavy rains, it became difficult to coordinate the trains and rail personnel. Passengers who were unaware of the situation found themselves stuck in train stations, adding to the confusion.

But this time, JR East announced immediately after the incident occurred that recovery was likely to be significantly delayed. The announcement was made not only on its website but also in the media. Additionally, the deployment of large numbers of staff to major stations, such as Tokyo Station, to guide passengers was also a definite step forward.

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Nonetheless, it is unacceptable that it took about 20 hours to restore regular service. The delay was partly caused by an accident during the restoration work. One worker was electrocuted and two others suffered burns.

It is imperative that we ascertain whether the track maintenance work, which is the key to safety, has been adequate. This includes identifying the cause of the sagging overhead wires. 

The section of rail between Tokyo and Omiya is like a "funnel" through which all three affected Shinkansen lines, including the Tohoku Shinkansen, run. If an accident occurs in this stretch, all the rail lines running through it are affected. 

Workers gather around the shinkansen that stopped in Saitama City. January 23. (©Kyodo)

Passenger-First Service

Since in the past, the Tohoku-Joetsu Shinkansen departed from Omiya. There are six Shinkansen platforms at Omiya Station. Some experts have pointed out that if an emergency operation management system had been adopted beforehand, many trains could be turned around and rerouted at Omiya.

When an accident or disaster occurs, JR companies tend to prioritize complete suspension of service to ensure safety. There are circumstances in which that is unavoidable. 

Nevertheless, JR companies should demonstrate flexibility like major private railway companies. It needs to make daily preparations necessary to resume routes in turn as they become operable, based on a case-by-case assessment.

We strongly hope that JR East will investigate the cause of the accident and take measures to prevent recurrence, as well as put "passengers first" in their response.

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(Read the editorial in Japanese.)

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun

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