This page is adapted from the original transcript of NHK’s TOMORROW, broadcast on March 9, 2015
When the Great East Japan Earthquake hit the Tohoku region in 2011, its railway system was heavily damaged.
Ten railway lines were hit by the tsunami.
Five trains and over 60 kilometers of rail were swept away. However, not a single passenger or crew member aboard a train that day was injured or killed
Why were there no injuries or casualties? One of the reasons was the power of technology.
“So you can reproduce any type of earthquake? “
“Yes, we can.”
In order to reduce earthquake damage, large-scale tests and research have been carried out.
“It looks like the technologies are highly advanced.”
In one case, many lives were saved thanks to a last-minute crucial decision.
“A considerable number of people might have died if we had followed the instructions.”
“I'm so thankful to him for saving my life.”
Another thing that saved lives was the power of people, both train workers and passengers.
Jason Hancock will visit the disaster area to find out exactly what happened.
“I’m Jason Hancock. Today, I’m at the world famous Tokyo station. Impressively, on March 11th (2011), there were no injuries or casualties sustained by passengers aboard the train in the Tohoku region. This is thanks to technology, preparation, the quick wit and fast action of the railway workers. On today’s episode I want to take a closer look at how they made that happen.”
(Jason Hancock: Reporter)
Jason’s journey north starts at Tokyo station. He will be boarding the Tohoku Shinkansen. This is Tohoku's main rail artery, with more than 200 Up and Down trains every day.
It takes only about three hours to run the 670 kilometers from Tokyo to the northern tip of Honshu. With a top speed of 320kph, these are the fastest trains in Japan.
“The Shinkansen is traveling at such a fast speed, it makes me think that if there were an earthquake it could be a very dangerous and disastrous situation. I’m curious to know about the technology and things in place in case there is an earthquake when someone is on the Shinkansen.”
But before that, Jason wants to relax a little.
“So there’s many things on the cart and I’m hoping I can find a snack that I like.”
“Excuse me, do you have any chocolates?”
“Yes. You have a choice among these.”
“Wow, what should I do? OK, I'll take this almond one.”
“So on the cart there are so many items. and it’s lot of fun to ride the trains like this.”
Hey Jason, do not forget you are at work!
When the earthquake struck on March 11th, 2011, 27 Tohoku Shinkansen trains were running with passengers on board.
One of them near the epicenter was traveling at 270kph, but it had slowed down to 100kph when the biggest tremor hit.
Other trains began to slow down before the shaking began and then came safely to a halt. So what was it like inside those trains when they made an emergency stop?
One of the passengers was Kosuke Kuji, a sake brewer. He frequently uses the Tohoku Shinkansen for business trips.
When the quake hit, he did not feel any shaking until the train came to a complete stop.
“It didn’t come to an abrupt stop with a squeal of brakes. It just gradually decelerated as usual. I assume that the main shock came as the train was slowing down, but I barely felt it.”
(Kosuke Kuji: Passenger from Iwate Pref.)
The train was almost full. However, Kuji says that the passengers remained completely calm.
“No one was screaming or shouting ‘What's going on?’ or getting panicky. Everyone was just curious to know what was going on. They all looked nonchalant. After the train had stopped, there was an announcement saying that there was an earthquake and then we felt some shaking.”
All the trains with passengers aboard stopped safely without derailing. How did this situation come about?
Jason visited the Railway Technical Research Institute which developed the technology that made it possible.
“Good morning. Nice to meet you.”
The first thing to catch Jason's eyes was this model of the Shinkansen halting system.
“Before the main shock arrives, this system detects it and stops the trains.”
(Researcher: Railway Technical Research Institute)
The model simulates an earthquake occurring on the ocean floor. And the red lamp shows how the seismic waves are transmitted.
The waves are transmitted in two phases. P-waves are transmitted faster and their shock is smaller.
S-waves arrive later and create greater shaking.
If P-waves are detected by the seismometer, an alarm can be raised before any S-waves arrive.
So the task of the seismometers is to detect P-waves.
JR-East, which operates the Tohoku Shinkansen, installed seismometers at 127 locations along the Shinkansen routes and on the coast.
When the Great East Japan Earthquake occurred, a seismometer installed on the island nearest the epicenter immediately detected a wave.
Once a seismometer detects the small shaking of a P-wave, it calculates in a few seconds how big the following S-wave is likely to be. Earthquakes occur very frequently in Japan, so it’s vital to grasp instantly whether the Shinkansen trains need to be stopped or not.
When a big earthquake is expected, signals are transmitted automatically...
...and the power transmission is stopped.
Then the brakes are automatically applied on the trains.
“Ah, it stops like this.”
“Right. As you can see, a big quake is felt here…”
“Yes, I can see the shaking. Wow, it’s shaking a lot!”
“It’s amazing technology. Yes, it is highly advanced.”
On March 11th, power transmission to the sections near the epicenter was stopped just a few seconds after a seismic wave was detected.
Then, power transmission to the whole length of the Tohoku Shinkansen was stopped. Before the major tremors arrived, the brakes had been applied on all the Shinkansen trains, and the lives of all the passengers and crew members were saved.
This system has been in place and steadily improved ever since the start of the Shinkansen services 50 years ago.
And the research goes on…
The biggest challenge is to increase the speed of calculating how big a quake will be so that power transmission can be stopped accordingly.
How long does it take with the current system?
“Currently, it takes two seconds. See the blue line there? This is the current system.”
“The one you use now?”
“It takes two seconds.”
“Two seconds? That sounds fast enough.”
“Well, it’s fast, yes.”
“But you want to make it faster?”
At this point, it takes two seconds to forecast the scale of the main shock after they detect a P-wave.
Now they are trying to develop a way to calculate it in just half a second.
“When a Shinkansen travels at 300 kilometers per hour, it moves a distance of 80 meters in one second. Saving 1.5 seconds would mean saving over 100 meters.”
“How soon do you think you can realize that?”
“We’re hoping to make it happen in a couple of years.”
Research is also being conducted on reinforcing the rails and bridges. Even if you can stop the trains when a quake hits, you cannot ensure safety if the hardware is vulnerable. So by reproducing past earthquakes and shaking rails and concrete pillars, they are working on how to enhance their durability.
“By doing these tests, we’re hoping to come up with earthquake-resistant structures and increase the accuracy of our simulations. That’s what we do.”
In the Tohoku region, besides the Shinkansen services, there are many local lines that serve the communities.
“We’ve seen how technology helps with earthquake safety on the Shinkansen. Now I’ve changed from the Shinkansen to a local train. The events that took place on this line on that day are an example of how the wisdom and action of the railway workers saved lives.”
Twelve passenger lines operate on the Pacific side of the Tohoku region. Ten of them were damaged by the 3.11 tsunami.
The Senseki Line was one of them.
The 50-kilometer-long line connects Ishinomaki, a major fishing port, and Sendai, the biggest city in Tohoku. A 12-kilometer section in the middle has still not been restored(2014).
This is Nobiru Station on the unrestored section. It was very important to the local community.
It is situated 700 meters from the shoreline. It used to get very busy in summer when many passengers came to visit the beach.
On March 11, 2011, one minute before the earthquake hit, a rapid DOWN train left the station. There were 96 passengers on the 4-car train.
Azusa Yoshida was one of them. She used this line to commute to a childcare academy in Sendai.
“At first, I thought it was just the train shaking. But it seemed stronger than that. Then the train made an abrupt stop and an announcement was made. And I realized then that it must be serious.”
(Azusa Yoshida: Passenger)
Right after the shaking started, the train made an emergency stop. It stopped as it was climbing up a slight incline.
This video was filmed the next day. There were cliffs on both sides and no help available.
Several people from outside the area were also on the train.
Shuji Kondo is a professional wrestler. He was riding on the Senseki line for the first time to participate in a match being held in Ishinomaki later that day.
When the train stopped, he did not imagine the situation to be serious at all.
“It was a lateral vibration and very strong. But I thought it would soon be over and I did not expect anything serious. So I thought, ‘Now that the shaking’s over, I hope we’ll get going or I’ll be late for the match!’”
(Shuji Kondo: Passenger)
The train crew immediately got in touch with the control room in Sendai. And they received an instruction, which said "Guide all the passengers to the closest evacuation site as a tsunami is approaching."
The closest designated evacuation site was Nobiru Elementary School. That was over one kilometer away from where the train had stopped.
“The passengers around me were saying ‘Did you hear? It seems we have to evacuate.’ Everyone was saying something like that, so I thought I’d have to evacuate, too.”
One of the train crew opened the door of the last car and started helping passengers down the ladder one by one. The passengers who got out then started walking along the rails towards the evacuation site.
However, suddenly, one man questioned the instruction. It was Yoshimi Abe, a company executive, who lives in Ishinomaki.
He was on his way home from a business trip to Tokyo.
“I told the conductor that I thought we should all go back to the train because that was the safest location. I explained to him pointing back to where the train was and considering the geographical situation. There was a hill on both sides of the train, including the ocean side. That was good because the train was not right next to the ocean. Even if a tsunami came near us, the water would run to the lower areas. The hill would protect us and the water would run to the sides.”
(Yoshimi Abe: Passenger)
The train had stopped was at the highest point of a hill. The passengers would have to go down and walk along the lower level to reach the evacuation site. Abe thought it would be much riskier to do that.
For a long time, he was a voluntary local fire brigade member, and he is in charge of security at the fish processing company he works at. He also has had experience in forestry, so he knows how to evaluate geographical features.
Unexpectedly, the train crew were receiving advice from a passenger. They tried unsuccessfully to get in touch with the control room again. Being isolated, the train driver and the conductor had to make a tough decision on which the lives of the 96 passengers depended.
“Nobiru Elementary School where we were heading was at a lower point than the train. If a tsunami came, we thought it would certainly be safer if we remained inside the train at the higher level. Although the decision went against the instructions we had received from the control room, we decided to stay in the train.”
(Takayuki Watanabe: Conductor)
The train was located at the top of a hill. The passengers gathered in the third car, which was at the highest point. Even though they had all decided to remain in the train, anxiety was growing.
“One passenger had a radio and turned it on. For the first time in my life I heard the word ‘devastated’. Then they said ‘several thousand people have been swept away’ and the news was changing every moment. It was then that I started to feel panicky.”
(Azusa Yoshida: Passenger)
The estimated time for the tsunami to arrive was approaching. The car was filled with an oppressive atmosphere.
“Cell phones were out of service so we had no information. We just had to follow someone's instructions. The conductor was young but he seemed very mature, so I thought we should listen to him and stay where we were because that seemed the safest option.”
(Shuji Kondo: Passenger)
Yoshida started writing a will on her mobile.
“I thought that might be the end of my life. So I started writing a message on my mobile to my friends and family: ‘I have managed to live up to this point.’ ‘Thank you so much for everything.’”
Kondo had other thoughts...
“There was a cliff at the side of the train. When I heard the tsunami would arrive in a few minutes, I thought maybe I would have to leave the train and somehow climb up that cliff to survive. That was how I was feeling right then, to be honest.”
About one hour after the quake, the tsunami arrived. This photograph was taken by Yoshida from the first car of the train. The tsunami was flowing into the paddy field near the train
“Black smoke was billowing from the tsunami. I couldn't hear anything, but the tsunami looked as if it was roaring and gobbling up everything. I could see the wave and smoke coming towards us.”
Sitting in the third car, Kondo saw a strange sight.
“The power line posts were rocking violently and seeing that was so scary. I couldn’t see down below, but I could tell that they were about to be swept away.”
Abe was seeing the same thing from the last car. And he saw the tsunami coming.
“It swallowed everything up, including two-story houses. Right over there, where that car just passed. It ran through there.
The wave came up to about one meter over there, just below this cliff.”
“So that was a close call.”
“A very close call.”
The train had escaped by a narrow shave. It was already dark, so the passengers had no choice but to stay inside the train until someone came to rescue them.
Power transmission had been cut off due to the quake, so there were no lights or heat. The passengers tried to keep warm by spreading seats from other cars over the cold floor, and putting advertising posters around the doors to prevent drafts from coming in. To survive overnight, they shared whatever sweets and packed meals they had with the others.
When they looked outside the next morning, they realized that they had only barely survived the tsunami.
Nobiru Elementary School, which they were supposed to evacuate to, had been hit by the tsunami and there were casualties.
“After that, I had a chance to speak to the conductor. And he said, ‘Mr. Abe, if we had evacuated at that point, I’m sure a considerable number of the passengers would have died.’ The tsunami was incredibly powerful. And he added, ‘We are so lucky to have survived.’”
The 96 passengers who were on that rapid train on the Senseki Line shared a common destiny. Eventually, they walked to another evacuation site and all of them were confirmed safe.
All the passengers reflect on the lessons to be learned from that experience.
“The decision made by the conductor at that point was great. That must be it. I was at a loss. If someone had said I should go to the school, then I'd have headed to the school.”
“In that situation, no one became upset or panicky, and the people didn’t split into two groups. I guess that was because of the discussions between the train pros and the disaster-prevention pros which allowed them to make really the best decision at that time. I am sincerely thankful to those who saved my life.”
“The biggest reason why we survived was the train crew’s decision and the fact that JR Sendai control center let them decide what to do independently. That’s why we were all able to make it through. No matter what I said, they could have turned down my idea. Also, all of the passengers followed their instructions. I think that was a big factor.”
This is the Sendai Branch Office of JR East, which operates the Senseki Line. Because they had lost contact, the employees were not able to confirm the safety of the passengers and the crew of the train.
Kazuhiro Igarashi was the manager of the transport safety section in charge at that time. When he heard everyone was safe the following day, he felt very relieved.
“When I heard that they decided to stay in the train thanks to a passenger's advice, I felt so relieved, and I wanted to praise that young train driver and the young conductor for making the right decision.”
Former Manager, Transport Safety Section, Sendai Branch Office of JR East )
JR has followed "The Safety Principles," as an iron law for over 60 years.
After 3.11, they added: “Never panic. Think and act for yourself.” The principle values the idea that a train crew should think and act flexibly to deal appropriately with whatever situation arises.
The tsunami struck Nobiru Station and the surrounding town.
Now they have started to create a new town. The station has been relocated to a higher site one kilometer away from its original location.
This is the new Nobiru Station. The Senseki Line is also being relocated to a higher level.
The new town will be developed next to the station. The residents who lost their houses on 3.11 will be moving to that area together.
“Because there is a station, there is a town. Because there is a town, there is a station. Both of them will grow and develop further because they have each other.”
(Takaya Nagai: Manager, Reconstruction Planning Dept., JR East)
The new Nobiru Station will open at the end of May 2015. And the entire Senseki Line will resume operations as well.
The residents will begin to move into the new residential area in about two years.
The residents are naturally eager to settle down again.
“How do you feel about moving into a new town?”
“I can’t wait to move in! I want our town to be completed as soon as possible. Now that the construction’s progressing, I feel excited every day.”
(Katsunori Kikuchi: Secretary, Northern Nobiru Restoration Association)
“It’s great to look forward to!”
Overcoming all the hardships caused by the disaster, a new and safer town and railway are being born. A new chapter in Nobiru’s history will be starting very soon.
“They say that because there’s a town there’s a station, and because there’s a station there’s a town. For the Japanese, the trains and the stations are a central part of their everyday lives. I was happy to know that the events on March 11th created growth in technology and wisdom on behalf of those trains. I feel like the unsung railway heroes on March 11th are laying a new track to a brighter future.”