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Long hot summer on track

Fears of unbearable heat this summer for train commuters in the Tokyo Metropolitan Area are mounting for two reasons: (1) Electric power shortages triggered by the accidents at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power station may force East Japan Railway Co. (JR East), the major operator of commuter trains, to suspend the use of air conditioners; and (2) with the train cars now in use, windows can be opened only partially to let in fresh air even when the air conditioning is off.

An expert in railway technologies has pointed out that designers of today’s commuter trains did not take into account the possibility of air-conditioning cuts to conserve electricity.

Most JR East commuter trains were designed on the assumption that the inside car temperature would always be controlled by air conditioning. Few windows can be opened manually; in fact, the newer windows no longer have curtains and are fitted instead with glass panes to absorb heat rays.

The shortcomings of this assumption became apparent March 23, 2005, when a power failure forced a train to halt between Omori and Kamata stations on the Keihin-Tohoku Line. With the air conditioning out and windows that could not be opened, temperatures inside kept going up. Many passengers fell ill and had to be taken to a hospital.

A far more tragic situation would have resulted had the power failure occurred in the middle of the summer or during the rush hours.

Today’s railway car design can be traced to the late Shuichiro Yamanouchi, a former chairman of JR East. In 1987, the state- owned Japanese National Railways (JNR) was privatized and split into six regional passenger service companies, including JR East, and one freight transport firm. Yamanouchi instructed engineers to adopt thorough cost-cutting measures in car construction. Cars were to weigh half as much as conventional ones. Their longevity was also to be cut in half.

Engineers diligently followed his instructions and launched the first cars based on his concept in 1992, five years after the JNR privatization.

Although their production cost or weight was not halved as targeted, they were epoch-making in that their electricity consumption was reduced to less than one half of conventional trains due to improvements in motor rotation controls and to the adoption of a “regenerative brake” system, which uses electric power the motor generates when the train is decelerating.

There were some downsides to these new cars, however. All windows were “fixed” for cost-cutting reasons and, therefore, could not be opened. Windows used heat-absorbing glass plates since heat-shielding curtains were eliminated.

After the 2005 accident in which many passengers became ill, JR East modified the windows of more than 800 train cars. Each car today has four windows that can be opened by hand, but only partially. The rest are “fixed” as in the past. It is questionable whether sufficient ventilation can be maintained without air conditioning. The heat-absorbing glass provides little relief by itself.

The expert in railway technologies says this situation is a “typical example” of sacrificing safety in the rush to privatize and divide JNR, and to improve postprivatization profitability.

Another headache as summer approaches is a “brush” supply shortage. Brushes are small components that conduct electricity to the rotating part of a direct current motor. Two factories of Hitachi Chemical Co. in Fukushima and Ibaraki prefectures, which used to supply about 70 percent of these brushes for JR East and other Japanese railway companies, were damaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

West Japan Railway Co. (JR West) was once forced to consider reducing the number of its scheduled train runs at a time when about a half of its 4,700 train cars were fitted with direct current motors, which require brushes.

With JR East, some 15 percent of its 12,000 train cars are fitted with direct current motors. While other makers are trying to supply brushes, a full supply may not be ready before the summer heat sets in. Should the need arise to reduce the number of train runs during at rush hour due to the supply shortage of this component, conditions inside already notoriously crowded commuter trains in Tokyo and adjacent areas could get worse, adding to the misery for hundreds of thousands of people who go to and from work and school by train every day.

These problems are not peculiar to JR East. Many other railway companies have introduced train cars whose windows were designed on the assumption that air conditioners would operate all the time. Those railway companies include Odakyu, Tokyu, Sagami and Toei Chikatetsu (the Tokyo metropolitan subway train service).

As it took JR East two years to modify the windows of 800 cars after the 2005 accident, it is not likely that the situation will improve before summer.

Should any serious accident occur as a result of the undesirable design of its commuter trains, JR East cannot use any excuse. It enters the summer season, carrying a “bomb” around with it.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the May issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic issues.