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Fifth in an occasional series on Japan’s Y2K preparedness

Staff writer

A Nozomi bullet train, the first shinkansen run of the day, leaves JR Tokyo Station at 5:50 a.m. for Osaka. By the end of the day, 300 more bullet trains will have arrived and departed from the capital.

The Tokaido Shinkansen Line, which has had no serious accidents since its debut in 1964, transports an average 368,000 passengers a day, linking Tokyo and Osaka through a tight time schedule.

The smooth operations of the bullet train system are supported by the computer-
aided traffic control system COMTRAC, which poses the only vulnerability to Year 2000 computer glitches for shinkansen operators, according to Nobuo Takei, head of the Y2K project team at Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai). “We change the time schedule every day using COMTRAC. The only scenario that we can think of is that COMTRAC would be unable to form the timetable for Jan. 1,” Takei said.

COMTRAC is designed to assist the Nagoya-based carrier in creating the bullet train schedule and monitoring operations of the high-speed mass transit system. However, Takei stressed that even if COMTRAC stops functioning, the carrier can manage operations manually.

In cooperation with West Japan Railway Co., which operates the Sanyo Shinkansen Line, JR Tokai has been checking about 4 million computer commands in the COMTRAC system to see which programs use dates and therefore may be hit by the so-called millennium bug.

Computers and software designed to recognize the year by the last two digits may mistake 2000 as 1900, possibly triggering errors and failures on Jan. 1. “We have to check (the programs) by sight. Our team of about 30 members has spent almost three years checking the programs. Contrary to computer systems employing top-notch technology, we cannot help relying on labor-
intensive work for checking,” Takei said.

COMTRAC, originally introduced to operate bullet trains in the 1970s, has been upgraded several times since then, most recently in 1994. JR Tokai plans to complete all necessary conversions by the end of June and finish all preparations by the end of September, including simulation tests.

In the railroad sector, especially among major carriers, computers are widely used, from train operations to power supply systems and passenger services such as reservations and the issuing of tickets.

However, computers are rarely used in railroad safety systems such as signals and switches to prevent collisions and derailments, making those systems immune to the Y2K problem, according to a Transport Ministry official. “Railway companies started to computerize their traffic systems in 1985. But the basic concept of the safety system remains intact, which is simple and low-function. This makes railways invulnerable to Y2K,” the official said.

Although some computers are used in safety systems designed to stop trains in emergencies, the official stressed that they are few in number and thus relatively easy to make Y2K compliant.

In contrast to big train operators such as JR Tokai, most of the 180 railways in the country are small and medium-size carriers and have not computerized their train systems yet due to their weak financial bases, the official added. The government has instructed the railway industry to complete countermeasures against Y2K by the end of June. But progress in preparing for the Y2K problem varies depending on the carrier.

In a survey of 37 major railways, 19 percent had completed all preparations as of the end of March, while 39 percent answered that their Y2K preparedness is less than 20 percent complete. JR Tokai and five other JR group carriers jointly operate computer systems for sales activities such as taking reservations and issuing tickets. Countermeasures against the Y2K problem were completed in March.

JR Tokai, which started assessing the Y2K impact on its operations in 1995, has since set up an internal committee to cope with the millennium bug. “A key to the Y2K issue is to raise awareness of Y2K among employees, because all of our computers need to be checked. … We are confident of containing the Y2K impact in our operations,” Takei said.

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