Ministry to put railway security measures in motion

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Passengers escape through the windows of a train at Kokuryo Station on the Keio Line in Chofu, Tokyo, on Oct. 31.

In response to a recent knife and arson attack on a Keio Line train while it was moving, the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry has compiled a number of measures to strengthen railway security, including the installation of on-board security cameras and conducting inspections of items riders carry onto trains.

Railway security measures have so far placed an emphasis on accident prevention, but efforts to prevent crime will also be required.

2 major security challenges

“We need a review of railway administrative procedures in line with the changing of the times,” Shuji Eguchi, assistant vice minister for engineering affairs (railway) of the ministry said at a Dec. 14 meeting to discuss specific security measures in response to the recent attack on the Keio Line.

The word “change” refers to the fact that in-train incidents have increased in recent years. There was an act of arson that took place on a Shinkansen train in 2015, while a knife attack occurred on another bullet train in 2018. The Oct. 31 attack on the Keio Line train shed light on the fact that enough security measures were not in place.

In the attack, a man carrying a knife stabbed another passenger, poured lighter fuel on the train and set it on fire. The rider who was stabbed suffered serious injuries, and 16 passengers suffered minor injuries such as smoke inhalation.

The first challenge is the delay in the detection of crimes. Installing security cameras on train cars is not mandatory, and no surveillance equipment was in the train car where the crime occurred.

There is an emergency alert system in the train car that allows passengers to talk to the conductor. However, in the midst of the incident, the emergency button was only pushed and no communication took place. As a result, the conductor was not able to fully grasp the gravity of the situation until directly asking passengers what happened.

The second security challenge is the evacuation of trains during emergencies. This particular train made an emergency stop at nearby Kokuryo Station, but railway personnel failed to promptly evacuate passengers because the train did not halt at the designated train-stop position. The train crew made the decision not to open the train car doors, in accordance with protocols that say passengers could be injured in such situations.

Because an emergency lever that allows passengers to manually open the train car doors was activated, a security device was also triggered, making it impossible to move the train into the proper stop position.

In the midst of the chaos, passengers escaped from the windows of the train.

Conventional security measures assume that the train crew and passengers can respond in a relatively cool-headed manner. Since there is no presumption of panic, Yoichi Kanayama, a professor at the University of Toyama on railway engineering, said crime is not at the forefront of planning.

“Historically, railway companies have put an emphasis on preparations for accidents and natural disasters, and they have not paid much attention to crime on trains,” he said.

Largely positive

Some of the new measures take into consideration the first security challenge — for instance, making installation of security cameras in newly built train cars mandatory and standardizing signs showing how to use emergency alert systems.

The ratio of security camera installations currently varies greatly among railway companies, while some surveillance equipment only has a recording function and does not constantly display images from inside trains. To address the situation, security cameras will be installed on all train cars and performance standards will be created for this form of monitoring.

When it comes to emergency alert systems, the ministry will create standardized signs using pictograms and other symbols to show the location and usage of such a system, aiming to make it more user-friendly to passengers.

As for the second challenge, the ministry aims to improve emergency responses by asking railway officials to make sure to (1) consider the situation an emergency when more than two emergency alert systems are activated and make an emergency stop, and (2) open train doors even if the train does not stop at designated stopping positions and there is some distance between the train doors and the platform safety doors.

Railway companies are largely positive about these enhanced security measures. While installing security cameras comes at a cost, it will not create a great financial burden because the measure calling for the installation of security cameras is only for newly built train cars.

Concerns over inspections

However, some voice concerns over inspections of riders’ personal items.

It became possible to conduct checks of passengers’ possessions in July as part of counterterrorism measures for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics this past summer. However, conducting inspections on every passenger, the way checks are done at airports, is almost impossible at railway stations, which have multiple ticket gates.

The ministry is considering asking the station staff to talk to suspicious passengers. However, many railway companies say that it is difficult for the station staff to act as police officers.

Another bottleneck is the difficult financial circumstances railway companies face. In addition to a recent labor shortage, the number of passengers has declined because of the coronavirus pandemic, and railway companies are streamlining operations.

East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) introduced an autonomous driving system for some trains, while more companies are implementing station guidance systems using artificial intelligence.

Riders protect themselves

In the latest move to enhance railway security measures, the ministry also calls for passengers to be involved.

The ministry specifically asks passengers to do three things: (1) make note of the location of emergency alert systems when they board trains; (2) push the button without hesitation in case of emergencies; and (3) generally avoid using emergency door levers in principle.

This is because the ministry believes that passengers’ lack of knowledge on the usage of the emergency alert system was another factor that caused confusion during the incident.

When using the emergency alert button, a passenger pushes the alert button to let the conductor know there is an issue. The passenger can then talk to the conductor via a built-in microphone. However, the specifications and locations of emergency alert systems differ depending on train companies, so passengers need to know the information ahead of an emergency.

The emergency door lever is basically for use by train crew members. It is used when passengers are locked in the train because of accident or disaster. On the other hand, opening it makes it impossible to increase the speed of trains, making it difficult to move the train to a different location.

Trains basically have two crew members — a driver and a conductor. They cannot completely prevent unexpected situations, and in that case, passenger assistance and awareness in protecting themselves will be important.

Said railway journalist Tatsuya Edakubo: “You should protect yourself on your own, the same as you would do in a disaster or a fire. Each passenger needs to have at least minimum knowledge, and I hope railway companies try to raise the awareness of passengers.”