• Kyodo

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About 90 percent of Japan’s major train operators are prepared to halt services in the event of a government alert warning of an imminent threat from a North Korean ballistic missile, a Kyodo News survey showed Tuesday.

The move would freeze the country’s public transport system, with experts saying it was both necessary to minimize potential damage from an attack but also disruptive.

Among the 31 major operators surveyed, 27 said they would halt services based on information provided by the government’s satellite-based J-Alert system or a similar alert system called Em-Net.

Of those, nine said they would suspend all train services upon receiving an alert of a missile launch even if they did not know where the missile would land.

The government first issues a launch alert under the J-Alert system if it sees the likelihood of a missile flying toward Japan. If the government then determines that the missile may hit the mainland, another alert is issued calling on people to take cover inside buildings.

Many operators stepped up their preparedness in April amid heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula, with North Korea test-firing a ballistic missile on April 29 following a slew of similar missile launches and rising concerns about it conducting a sixth nuclear test.

At the time, Tokyo Metro was criticized after it suspended train services following media reports of a ballistic missile launch by Pyongyang.

“North Korean missiles are increasingly seen as a real threat,” said Seiji Abe, a Kansai University professor specializing in transport policy. “If a train were to go across a bridge that has been damaged by a missile, for example, it could cause great secondary damage, so halting trains based on J-alert or Em-Net information is the right choice.”

Kyodo News interviewed representatives of all six Japan Railway group companies, 16 major members of the Association of Japanese Private Railways and nine municipalities operating their own public subway services.

The nine railway operators that would suspend train services upon receiving missile launch information included Tokyo-based Tokyu Corp. and Fukuoka-based Nishi-Nippon Railroad Co.

A total of 13 operators, including Saitama Prefecture-based Seibu Railway Co. and Osaka-based Hankyu Corp., would halt services upon receiving information of an incoming missile to their service areas.

Five other operators said they would also consider other circumstances in making such decisions. They included Tokyo-based Tobu Railway Co. and Central Japan Railway Co., also known as JR Tokai.

Four operators said they have yet to decide on their response, including the transportation bureaus in the cities of Kyoto and Sendai.

While many of the operators said they would take media reports into account, none said they would halt services based solely on media reports.

Tokyo Metro decided in mid-April to stop trains when it receives media reports of missile launches. On April 29 it suspended train services for about 10 minutes when North Korea test-fired a missile.

But given the impact on users and imbalance with other train operators, it has since decided to make its decision based on the J-Alert system.

Among other notable responses, the Osaka Municipal Transportation Bureau, which operates the Osaka Municipal Subway, said it would stop using subway ventilators as an additional precaution against a chemical weapons attack when it received a call to evacuate after an initial alert.

Sapporo City Transportation, which said it would stop trains based on information of a missile launch, said its officials would use office mobile phones to receive emergency alert emails as it did not have the equipment to receive J-Alert messages.

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