National

Typhoon Faxai raises questions about Japan's train schedule management and the fragility of its infrastructure

by Magdalena Osumi and Satoshi Sugiyama

Staff Writers

The chaos caused by Typhoon Faxai, which made landfall on Monday morning as one of the strongest on record to hit the greater Tokyo region, continued to reverberate a day later, exposing the susceptibility of the capital’s infrastructure to natural disasters and holding lessons for Japan on transportation and recovery planning in times of emergencies.

As the typhoon approached Sunday evening, East Japan Railways Co. had already notified passengers that all its early morning train services the next day would be suspended until around 8 a.m.

But restoration of service was slower than anticipated and about 2.7 million JR East passengers were affected by train cancellations and delays at the start of the work week. Some services didn’t resume until Tuesday morning, while others remained partially suspended even longer.

Advance notification of train cancellations is still a relatively new practice, but major railway companies have increasingly been using such tactics in an effort to prevent commuter chaos following a typhoon or other severe weather conditions.

Travelers stranded at Narita Airport rest in sleeping bags provided by the airport operator on Monday night. | KYODO
Travelers stranded at Narita Airport rest in sleeping bags provided by the airport operator on Monday night. | KYODO

Jun Umehara, a journalist who specializes in trains and railways, believes the plan to restore services by Monday morning “was unrealistic from the very beginning.”

“If operators wanted to prevent chaos, they should have adjusted their timetables to the weather conditions because strong winds were still expected around 8 a.m. on Monday. By failing to do so, they caused chaos themselves,” he said.

Umehara said that many people flocked to stations because operators had announced the services would be restored in time for rush hour at 8 a.m. “They should have waited until noon — that would lead passengers to rethink their commute and adjust work schedules.”

For Umehara, train companies should accept their inability to manage all incidents caused by extreme weather.

“The typhoon was more intense than expected and brought more damage than anticipated,” he said. “I think Japan should come to terms with its inability to predict all consequences of natural disasters and focus more on assistance to passengers amidst (post-disaster) chaos.

“Informing people that you don’t know when you’ll be able to resume operation is as vital as sharing concrete plans. It’s a natural disaster and it’s better to seek ways to help people find a way out rather than just keep them waiting uninformed.”

Stranded passengers at Narita International Airport try to settle in for the night on Tuesday in the wake of Typhoon Faxai. | KYODO
Stranded passengers at Narita International Airport try to settle in for the night on Tuesday in the wake of Typhoon Faxai. | KYODO

A JR East spokesperson acknowledged that its response to the natural disaster was “not perfect” but did not specify what concrete measures it would take to avoid overcrowding in the future.

Several JR lines had not been able to resume full operation as of Tuesday, the spokesperson said, adding that the company’s priority for now is to restart services before it begins to fully examine how it can respond better during any future natural disaster.

A total of 13,300 people were stranded at Narita International Airport as of Tuesday morning, as major train services connecting the airport with the capital were still out of operation. The typhoon also disrupted bus services as highways were closed off on routes linking Narita with Tokyo.

Chaos at the airport has sparked criticism of poor disaster preparedness among travelers, who shared complaints on social media about their confusion and the lack of information from airport staff about the ongoing situation. Many called the airport an “isolated island on land,” sharing photographs of people sleeping on the floor and emptying shelves at the airport’s convenience stores out of desperation.

The railway disruption apparently surprised the airport staff as well.

“Situations like this do happen once in a while, due to bad weather, most likely heavy snow, but I’d say it’s rare to see so many travelers left stranded at the airport due to a typhoon,” a spokesman for the airport said.

Stranded travelers wait at Narita Airport in the early hours of Tuesday, after the public transportation system connecting the airport and the Tokyo metropolitan area was disrupted in the wake of Typhoon Faxai. Around 13,000 people stayed at the airport overnight. | KYODO
Stranded travelers wait at Narita Airport in the early hours of Tuesday, after the public transportation system connecting the airport and the Tokyo metropolitan area was disrupted in the wake of Typhoon Faxai. Around 13,000 people stayed at the airport overnight. | KYODO

“To those stranded at the airport, we distribute food, water and sleeping bags … and we’re working to introduce further measures to help people who are unable to leave the airport,” he said. “But there’s not much we can do in such situations (when all trains are halted).”

By Monday evening, a few train and bus lines had started running but they could not handle the masses of waiting travelers.

Even by Tuesday evening, services on JR lines on the stretch between Chiba and Narita stations were still partially halted or delayed due to the inspection of electric wires on one of the lines in Yotsukaido, Chiba Prefecture. Recovery work also caused further delays on JR’s limited express lines, including the Narita Express.

Keisei Electric Railway Co., which operates services connecting the airport with Tokyo, had resumed all of its services by Tuesday morning. The company hadn’t discussed suspending services in advance, spokesman Masahiro Ogawa said.

Keisei is trying to be flexible with its train schedules to reflect changing weather, Ogawa added. But the lack of information regarding the resumption of the train service caused passengers to swarm around gates at its Tsudanuma Station in Chiba. The crowd was so overwhelming that the station staff imposed a limit on how many people could enter the station’s platforms until Monday evening.

Keisei, too, has not yet determined specific steps to better prepare for future storms.

The powerful typhoon made landfall near the city of Chiba, killing three people and leaving more than 60 injured. It also cut power to nearly a million customers in and around Tokyo. The collapse of steel towers for a transmission line that provides power to about 100,000 customers in the southern part of Chiba Prefecture complicated efforts to restore power.

Umehara, who was speaking from the city of Futtsu in the prefecture, was among the thousands left without power in the area as temperatures reached the mid-30s across much of the Kanto region.

As of Tuesday, electricity still hadn’t been restored for a large number of households across four prefectures. About 551,600 households in Chiba Prefecture, 21,800 houses in Kanagawa Prefecture and 12,800 houses in Ibaraki Prefecture were without power as of 3 p.m., according to Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.

Hiroshige Seko, minister of economy, trade and industry, told reporters Tuesday morning that power should be restored at 330,000 houses by the end of the day. The remaining houses, however, would reportedly have to wait until Wednesday or later to have power restored.