Railway firms must prevent disruption in event of emergencies

A fire at an East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) power substation forced the suspension of train lines in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Railway companies must take measures to minimize disruption in the event of an emergency.

The fire broke out at a substation in Warabi, Saitama Prefecture, at around noon on Oct. 10, halting power transmission to trains and stations. Operations on nine lines, including the Yamanote and Keihin-Tohoku lines, were temporarily suspended, affecting about 236,000 passengers. It took nearly seven hours to restore power to some sections.

Transformers and other equipment in the facility were reportedly burned. As no traces of an intrusion or a cyber-attack have been found, JR East believes it is highly likely that the problem was equipment-related.

Inspections conducted six days and two days before the fire did not reveal any abnormalities, according to JR East. Efforts must be made to identify the cause of the fire as soon as possible to prevent a recurrence.

The fire occurred at the “core substation” that supplies electricity to each substation in Saitama Prefecture and Tokyo. From there, electricity is sent to each railway line in the metropolitan area via several substations.

After the fire broke out, most of the lines were switched to electricity sent from another core substation and operations were gradually resumed after about one hour. However, as electricity could not be transmitted to some sections of the lines, JR East said it had to wait for operations to be restored at the substation where the fire broke out.

The company may have lacked the foresight to anticipate problems that could occur at railway substations.

Fires and power failures have occurred at substations in the past. In 2017, a power failure at the same substation occurred due to an operational error by workers. In June this year, a short circuit at a substation in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, halted operations on the Yamanote and other lines, affecting 160,000 people.

Substations are indispensable for the operation of trains. Threats also include cyberterrorism. Railway companies must be prepared for the unexpected, by securing in advance alternative electricity transmission routes and means of transportation such as buses, among other measures.

In the latest outage, the fire occurred on a Sunday. The sudden suspension of operations led to crowding around stations. The impact would have been even greater if it had occurred during commuting hours on a weekday.

The earthquake that struck the Tokyo metropolitan area on the night of Oct. 7 has just revealed the fragility of the urban transportation network, as rail services were temporarily suspended, disrupting train schedules. If traffic is paralyzed in a big city, the impact would be huge as many people might have difficulty returning home, among other possible issues.

In addition to such emergencies as the fire that broke out in Saitama Prefecture, there is no telling when natural disasters such as earthquakes and typhoons will occur. Railway companies must always be prepared for the worst scenario and take thorough measures to check railroad facilities and ensure passenger safety.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Oct. 14, 2021.