Make every possible effort to avoid derailments that could lead to a disaster

If a Shinkansen bullet train running at high speeds overturns, a catastrophe would be unavoidable. The government and JR companies must take urgent measures to prevent derailments in the event of an earthquake.

On April 14, services will resume on the Tohoku Shinkansen line between Fukushima and Sendai stations, which had been suspended following a derailment caused by a powerful earthquake off Fukushima Prefecture measuring up to upper 6 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale of 7. One month after the earthquake, services will be fully operational on all sections of the Tohoku Shinkansen line for the first time.

The earthquake caused two large tremors in succession. The first tremor occurred while the Shinkansen train was slowing down as it approached a station. The second tremor struck as the train was almost coming to a halt following the activation of its emergency brakes.

Even so, 16 of the train’s 17 cars derailed, and six of the 80 passengers and crew members aboard were slightly injured. If the train had been traveling at a high speed when the earthquake struck, there is a strong possibility that extensive damage would have been caused. The Japan Transport Safety Board of the transport ministry needs to investigate what happened at the time of the derailment and determine the cause as soon as possible.

JR companies have been working on measures to prevent bullet train derailments since a train derailed on the Joetsu Shinkansen line in the 2004 Niigata Prefecture Chuetsu Earthquake.

East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) has installed a device on all cars to prevent trains from veering far from the tracks in the event of a derailment. The company has also been working on a track-securing device to prevent rails from being dislodged due to the force of a derailment.

In the derailment of the Joetsu Shinkansen line, the tracks came off in some parts and the rear car tilted about 30 degrees. In the latest accident, most of the 16 derailed cars stayed on the tracks almost entirely. The two measures can be said to have had a certain effect.

However, one car veered one meter off the track onto the opposite rail, raising the risk of a collision with an oncoming train. Officials need to closely examine why the anti-deviation device did not function on that car.

Shinkansen anti-derailment measures vary from line to line. The Tokaido Shinkansen line and the Kyushu Shinkansen line have installed a steel guard inside tracks to prevent trains from veering from the railroad in the event of a derailment. It is important for JR East, which operates the Tohoku Shinkansen line, to consider future steps while referring to measures taken by other JR firms.

Some sections of the nation’s Shinkansen network still lack adequate measures to prevent derailments because of the huge cost involved and the fact that anti-derailment work can only be done at midnight when trains are not in service.

There is no telling when an earthquake will occur. JR companies should give top priority to implementing anti-derailment measures for such sections.

The recent earthquake off Fukushima Prefecture also caused damage at about 1,000 locations on the Tohoku Shinkansen line, including broken utility poles and warped tracks. In addition to derailment countermeasures, it is also important to work on seismic reinforcements on related facilities.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 13, 2022)