Tragedy averted in shinkansen derailed earthquake from lessons learned
A Japanese train operator says disaster was averted on a shinkansen bullet train that derailed in a recent powerful earthquake in northeastern Japan with no injuries, once again proving its safety thanks measures put in place after major earthquakes in the past.
All 78 passengers and crew aboard the derailed Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train are unharmed, East Japan Railway Co. said, after the 7.4-magnitude quake that struck Wednesday night killed three and more 180 injured in 12 prefectures.
The quake off the coast of Fukushima stuck the train at the top of an overpass as it traveled between Fukushima Station and Shiroishizao Station.
Photo taken on March 17, 2022 shows carriages of a Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train that was derailed a day earlier by a powerful 7.4 magnitude earthquake in Shiroishi, Miyagi Prefecture. (Kyodo)
According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, this is the second derailment of a high-speed train carrying passengers since October 2004, when an earthquake derailed a Joetsu Shinkansen in the Niigata prefecture, northwest of Tokyo.
Hitoshi Tsunashima, a railway engineering professor at Nihon University, said he suspected the emergency brakes activated by the Tohoku Shinkansen’s earthquake early warning system had helped reduce the damage.
Early warning and emergency braking systems have already proven effective in preventing a serious accident in 2011 when the massive M9.0 earthquake struck the same region.
When the Great East Japan Earthquake happened in 2011, 27 Tohoku Shinkansen trains were running and all of them came to a complete safe stop. Only a test train traveling at low speed in Sendai derailed.
According to JR East, the systems use seismographs installed along the shinkansen tracks to detect and stop moving trains during shaking.
The latest version of the systems integrates data from the Japan Meteorological Agency’s earthquake warning system and seismometers installed on the ocean floor.
JR East also developed special metal fittings following the Niigata derailment in 2004. L-shaped fittings on the trains catch the rails during events such as earthquakes, minimizing the amount of movement and the risk of derailment or collision with other objects along the tracks.
As for the rails, the company has taken measures to prevent them from coming loose and causing the trains to overturn.
A Department of Transportation official said the measures were working as intended, but damage to related equipment such as utility poles revealed gaps in current earthquake infrastructure.
Following an M7.3 earthquake off the coast of Fukushima in February 2021, damage to utility poles occurred in areas outside the so-called priority areas where JR East had focused its efforts to improve resistance earthquakes of infrastructures, by choosing places likely to undergo particularly strong tremors. on active fault data collected during the 2011 earthquake and the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake in western Japan.
The operator said it would reconsider expanding its priority area and double the pace of seismic fortification of utility poles, but would take another seven years.
Tohoku Shinkansen services between Nasushiobara Station and Morioka Station have been suspended. It will take time to understand the full extent of the damage and make the necessary repairs, and services are unlikely to resume in March, JR East said.
The company said on Friday the quake damaged rails in 10 locations and 24 power poles, while cutting overhead power lines in two locations. It confirmed 20 cases of structural damage to other facilities such as stations and overpasses.
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