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Japan Bullet Trains Resume as 8,500 Engineers Fix Quake Damage

Bullet Trains Resume as 8,500 Engineers Fix Quake Damage
A bullet train arrives prior to its departure for Tokyo at Sendai Station in Miyagi prefecture on April 25. Photographer: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images

Katsumi Kishitani worked almost seven weeks straight helping East Japan Railway Co. repair its busiest bullet-train line after last month’s earthquake. The payoff comes tomorrow when services fully resume for the spring holidays.

Kishitani, a transport ministry rail director for the earthquake-hit area, has been working 16-hour days and sleeping in his office in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture. JR East, as the railroad is known, deployed 8,500 engineers on its main Tohoku line to fix tracks, bridges and tunnels damaged by the nation’s biggest earthquake, said Satohiko Asakura, a company spokesman.

“I never imagined something this terrible would happen,” said Kishitani, 45. “We were speechless.”

The magnitude-9 earthquake damaged 1,200 places --including stations, bridges, tunnels and overheard wires -- on the JR East line, and an aftershock earlier this month damaged 550 more. The world’s largest listed railway operator by sales is completing the repair work two weeks faster than in 2004, when a magnitude-6.6 temblor derailed cars on the Joetsu high-speed line.

JR East initially said the aftershock could delay the resumption of service between Tokyo and Shin-Aomori, Japan’s northern-most high-speed train station, until next month, after the Golden Week holidays.

Passenger Revenue

“The accumulation of knowledge from those two earthquakes has paid off in the speed of our repairs,” Kishitani said.

The March 11 earthquake and tsunami contributed to the railroad’s biggest ever monthly drop in passenger revenue, it said April 5. The Tokyo-based company booked an extraordinary loss of 58.7 billion yen for the year ended March 31 to cover restoration expenses and recorded a 59 billion-yen drop in sales from the quake, it said yesterday.

The 117.7 billion yen in costs and lost revenue from the magnitude-9 quake is almost double the 60.2 billion yen the company recorded from a 2004 earthquake in Niigata, Toru Owada, chief financial officer of the railroad, said yesterday.

“It’s critical to get it up and running,” said Edwin Merner, president of Atlantis Investment Research Corp. in Tokyo, which manages about $3 billion in assets. “The bullet train is very important for business.”

More Than California, Texas

The railroad carried 88 million passengers on its five bullet-train, or Shinkansen, lines in the year ended March 31, 2010. That’s larger than the combined populations of California and Texas.

By comparison, Amtrak, based in Washington, said it carried 3.2 million passengers on its high-speed Acela Express train and 29 million across its U.S. network in the year ended Sept. 30.

JR East resumed partial service on the bullet-train line as repairs were completed. It reopened service from Tokyo to Fukushima, where the natural disasters triggered the world’s worst nuclear accident since 1986, earlier this month and extended it to Sendai this week.

The final leg opening tomorrow will allow passengers to ride all 714 kilometers (444 miles) between Tokyo and Shin-Aomori, as well as access the intersecting Akita bullet-train line.

“They are faster in implementation because everyone is committed to delivery,” said Euan Low, a director at engineering and management consultant Mott MacDonald Group Ltd. “The rigor of the engineers and depth of understanding is amazing.”

‘Vital to Community’

The full service coincides with the first of four national holidays in Golden Week, one of the nation’s busiest vacation times. A total of 1.5 million people used the Tohoku line during last year’s holiday period, according to company figures.

“Restoring the train and Shinkansen network in the quake area is vital to the community,” said Akihiro Ohata, Japan’s transport minister. “Repairing railways and ports is indispensable to safeguarding employment in the area.”

Sendai’s airport, which was engulfed by the tsunami, started commercial flights April 13 after Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military helped clear uprooted trees, houses and about 5,000 vehicles thrown about by rushing water. The main highway north opened to regular traffic last month.

JR East also may have benefited from additional investments in safety, including reinforcing structures against earthquakes. The railway targeted safety spending of 17.4 billion yen for the year ended March 31, a 56 percent increase from fiscal 2004.

23 Percent Decline

On March 11, a network of 97 earthquake detectors registered the temblor and triggered an automatic shutdown of bullet trains about 15 seconds before the quake hit the tracks, Asakura said. Automatic brakes stopped the 27 trains operating with no fatalities, he said.

The measures didn’t prevent a decline in JR East shares, which are down 23 percent since March 10, the day before the earthquake. The company had a net loss of 61.4 billion yen ($750 million) in the three months ended March 31, its biggest quarterly loss in at least nine years.

Masayuki Kubota, a fund manager at Daiwa SB Investments Ltd. in Tokyo, said the damage will have a “temporary effect” on the company.

“The real-estate business is their most promising growth area,” said Kubota, who oversees the equivalent of $1.9 billion in assets, including JR East shares. “In Japan, land prices are highest in front of railway stations, and so they have the most valuable land all over Japan.”

The nation’s other bullet-train operators -- Central Japan Railway Co., West Japan Railway Co. and Kyushu Railway Co. --did not suffer any major damages from the earthquake.

The earthquake struck six days after JR East started a new 300 kilometer-an-hour (186 mile-per-hour) bullet-train service between Tokyo and Shin-Aomori station. The company ran a new advertising campaign to draw people to the area after cutting travel time from Tokyo to 3 hours and 10 minutes.

“I’m waiting for the bullet train line to reopen,” said Fumio Nakata, 38, a Tokyo office worker from Aomori prefecture. “I want to use it to return to my hometown. It’ll be a relief once it’s running again as I’ll know I can visit my family anytime.”

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