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How high-speed rail can learn from Japan’s earthquake early warning system.

Posted by Luke Upton on May 26, 2016

Workers inspect the "Toki No. 325," derailed bullet train in Nagaoka, northwest of Tokyo after the earthquake of 2011. (Land and Transport Ministry,The two Kumamoto earthquakes that shook Japan in April of this year killed at least 49 people and injured about 3,000 others, caused extensive infrastructure damage as well as setting off a chain of devastating fires. Earthquakes are a regular occurrence in Japan, and Japan Rail has developed systems to mitigate the damage to its facilities and personnel, including an early earthquake warning system, retrofitting existing facilities for seismic safety, developing more seismically resistant designs for new facilities, and holding earthquake response training and exercises for company staff and passengers.

As California and other states move forward with high-speed rail plans, some have questioned the system’s ability to withstand earthquakes. This is especially critical in California, an active quake zone. A recent peer-reviewed research report from the Mineta Transportation Institute says that valuable lessons are easily adapted from Japan’s successes with its early earthquake warning (EEW) systems.

The report, ‘Great East Japan Earthquake, JR East Mitigation Successes, and Lessons for California High-Speed Rail’ written by principal investigators Frances Edwards, PhD, and Daniel Goodrich, MPA, working with an academic and professional research team.

“These systems demonstrated their value in the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 and have been further developed based on that experience,” said Dr. Edwards. “Researchers in California are developing an EEW system for the state, and the private sector has a few seismic sensors in place. These technologies could contribute to the safety of the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s developing system, which could emulate Japan’s best practices.” 

The JR East EEW system stops the train, prompting a response from passengers and staff. Detailed staff training in Japan was largely responsible for the subsequent lifesaving activities that moved passengers and staff out of harm’s way. There were no passenger or crew deaths on any JR East trains, including the bullet trains, during the 2011 triple disaster. For this report, the types of training and exercise activities used in Japan are evaluated for applicability to California rail systems.

That disaster’s impact and its three-fold aspects (earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear event) also provided valuable information for the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s (CHSRA) system. The insights are being leveraged and adapted to build greater safety for passengers and crew.

A fan of innoovative thinking within rail in the USA? Then you'll love SmartTransit which takes place in New York in October 2016. Find out more about the show here.

Scientist and specialist for the seismic detection “P Wave Sensor” system, Mr. Shunta Noda, who helped develop the early earthquake warning system for the high-speed rail in Kyushu, is part of Japan's Railway Technical Research Institute.  He and his team are currently working in collaboration with the USGS in Menlo Park to expedite the development of this innovative new earthquake early warning technology for California. Noda contributed information for MTI’s report and is helping to develop the California earthquake early warning technology.  

The MTI report explains the physics of seismic events before delving into the evolution of warning systems. It also describes the extensive training that JR East provides for its employees so they can assist during a disaster.

(A Train thrown down by the San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906. - U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Library) JR East provided MTI’s research team with reports that are rarely available to Western researchers on EEW system performance; seismic resistance and resilience research related to columns, piers and bridges; and staff training. The authors conducted extensive EEW research through the Berkeley Seismic Laboratory, at the sites of existing installed EEW systems, and structural engineering research on seismic resistance through private engineering activities.

JR East’s Earthquake Early Warning System was invented and deployed by the Railway Technical Research Institute, which is subsidized by JR companies such as JR East, West, Central, and four smaller companies.

SmartRail World reported in August 2014, that after an earthquake struck San Francisco, the local transit authority, BART had a 10 second warning, which may not seem long but had the earthquake happened when trains were running the warning would have enabled the control centre to automatically stop all trains travelling at 30MPH or less and trains moving faster to slow. This safety system comes from the 12 earthquake sensors BART has installed as part of the ‘ShakeAlert’ system developed by University of California-Berkeley Seismology Laboratory, United States Geological Survey and other partners. BART are on 150 users of the service across California but BART are the first transit users in the USA to use the service.(Pic top right: A Train thrown down by the San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906. - U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Library) 

Editor's comment: "Safety is our first priority and the Earthquake Safety Program has significantly strengthened much of the BART system to ensure the safety of passengers and employees in the event of a major earthquake," BART Board Director James Fang said in 2014, but high-speed could be a different matter. And have the Hyperloop given earthquake protection any thought? This important report, shows, as if it was needed that international co-operation is crucial to help find solution to the challenges of a rail earthquake. For a free, no-registration download of the full report, go to 

Interested in this aspect of rail safety then you may also be interested in...

How did BART know about the San Fran quake before anyone else?

Collapsed rail station the focus for Europe’s biggest ever disaster training exercise.

All aboard the ghost train… Next stop Tokyo. 

34 passengers and 5 star luxury – remarkable new Japanese train unveiled.

SmartTransit 2016

Topics: smartcities, TransportSecurity

Luke Upton

Written by Luke Upton

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