How Did Japan’s Bullet Trains Fare?

by Lou Dolinar

While the national media has focused on Japan’s struggle to control its 40-year-old nuclear power plants, another controversial technology, high-speed rail, has been undergoing the ultimate stress test in the wake of the tsunami and earthquake.

By most accounts, Japan’s famous bullet trains have fared reasonably well. Derailment of a train traveling in excess of 150 mph has greater catastrophic potential than one moving at less than half the speed. That’s why the country’s rail planning incorporates a unique safety feature: an earthquake sensing system that gives 30 seconds or more of warning before a coming shock wave. Bullet trains automatically screech to a halt, as do some slower systems — and they did, stranding passengers for hours but avoiding derailment.

Still, some ominous reports came out Friday, early in the crisis. It is important to note that the reports may not be accurate and have neither been confirmed nor shot down:

NOBIRU, Japan — A high-speed bullet passenger train with an unknown number of people aboard was unaccounted for Friday in tsunami-hit coastal Japan, according to Kyodo News.

The East Japan Railway Co. train was running near Nobiru Station on the Senseki Line connecting Sendai to Ishinomaki when a massive quake hit, triggering a 10-meter (33-foot) tsunami, the report said. A large number of tourists [One report put the number of missing at 400 — LD] are feared drowned after the bullet train was believed to be caught in the tsunami.

Clearly, some of the country’s slower commuter trains were caught in the tsunami. There are reports, again unconfirmed, that up to four of these trains were involved. Wading through photos on the Internet, I found at least three discrete shots of derailed trains, although it is possible the passengers survived.

If indeed a bullet train was lost, it will likely be the working of the law of unintended consequences. For the most part, bullet trains north of Tokyo run inland, so these were probably out of the tsunami’s range (see this map). However, there’s a small loop seaward to Sendai, among the hardest hit areas of the island. This is pure speculation here, but given the timing of the shock wave and the following tsunami, it is possible that safety systems stranded one or more trains in the path of the killer wave. Commuter trains follow a much longer stretch of coastline, and would have been particularly vulnerable.

Once the humanitarian crisis is over, the U.S. needs to undertake a “lessons learned” study of the Japanese rail system before committing to further development of our own. California, after all, has earthquakes, and rail advocates there have already been planning how to earthquake-proof HSR. Rail deaths in Japan are real, not hypothetical future possibilities like those so often cited by opponents of nuclear power.

In Japan, it appears that safety system worked, but did bringing trains to a rapid halt result in any injuries or deaths that have been lost in tide of tragedy elsewhere? What about construction techniques? One of the big issues in the California HSR — up to now largely about esthetics and finance — is where to put the track: on pylons overhead, at grade, or buried in a trench. In seismically active areas, the real question should be: Which system has proven to be the most robust?

Finally, liberal planners just might want to reexamine their ideological yearnings for high-speed rail, namely their conviction that it is somehow “better” for people to live in concentrated urban clumps, connected by public transit, than in diffuse, sprawling suburbs. Densely populated Japan must rely on rails to get people to and from work. When centralized systems like these fail, they fail across the board and, as appears likely in Japan, will be out of commission for a long time; aside from the track damage, electrical shortages due to nuclear-plant shutdowns are forcing service reductions. Suburbs and cars, on the other hand, are distributed systems, with inherently redundant roads and vehicles that are more resistant to natural disaster. Rescue workers aren’t taking the train to succor tsunami victims, they’re driving.

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