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Transport ministry to ask JR firms to speed up Shinkansen quake resistance work

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A bullet train runs on the Tohoku Shinkansen line in Shiroishi, Miyagi Prefecture, on April 14 after service was fully resumed.

The transport ministry is considering asking Japan Railways (JR) firms to speed up their plans for quake resistance work on Shinkansen lines — plans that were formulated more than 25 years ago — in response to the long-term suspension of Tohoku Shinkansen line services after a derailment caused by a powerful earthquake off Fukushima Prefecture in March this year, The Yomiuri Shimbun has learned.

Seismic reinforcement work has been in progress on the Tohoku and Joetsu Shinkansen lines operated by East Japan Railway Co., the Tokaido Shinkansen line operated by Central Japan Railway Co. and the Sanyo Shinkansen line operated by West Japan Railway Co.

To facilitate their quake resistance work, the ministry intends to allow Shinkansen operators to pass the work costs along to their passengers by adding them to Shinkansen fares. It plans to set up a panel of experts as early as this month and begin discussions for that purpose.

The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry took the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake as an opportunity to call on each JR company to work on seismic reinforcements for Shinkansen lines that were designed based on old standards dating from before the major quake.

Partly due to the expansion of target areas covered by the quake resistance work, however, the upgrades have yet to be fully completed, even though the plans were drawn up more than 25 years ago. For that reason, the ministry has judged it necessary to ask them to speed up the plans, which it has entirely left to Shinkansen operators.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The rate of compliance with quake resistance standards on the Tohoku and Joetsu Shinkansen lines is low, at 66% for elevated tracks and just 11% for utility poles.

The burden of the costs of the work is believed to be a reason for the slow progress on quake resistance measures. To help, the ministry plans to consider allowing JR firms to raise needed funds by increasing Shinkansen fares.

According to past official guidance to railway companies, fare hikes should be allowed only when their entire railway business is in the red. The ministry therefore will ease the guidance so that the railways will be able to raise fares even when the business is making a profit.

At the expert panel to be formed, the ministry intends to discuss the extent to which it will ask JR to complete the quake resistance work earlier than initially planned. In addition, it will discuss how to add the work costs to Shinkansen fares at another panel regarding railway fares that has already been established.

Service between Fukushima and Sendai stations on the Tohoku Shinkansen line was suspended for 29 days this spring following a derailment caused by the March 16 earthquake off Fukushima Prefecture, which measured up to upper 6 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale of 7. Elevated tracks, utility poles and other structures were damaged.

The period of suspended operations for a Shinkansen line before full-fledged resumption was the longest since the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Services on the Tohoku Shinkansen line were also suspended for 11 days due to an earthquake in February 2021.