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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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How a Shaken City Kept Steady Nerves

When Tokyo Region’s Technologies and Transit System Were Toppled by Quake,
People Improvised and Got Home Safely

By Richard P. Greenfield

Evaluating the Response, Future Needs

Three separate commissions have been formed by the Ministry of Infrastructure, Land and Transportation to hold hearings that examine different aspects of the events of March 11. Not all directly concern the events in Metropolitan Tokyo, though, in a future quake event, they could. The fact-finding sessions will include:

  • A conference to consider methods to prevent flooding in the subways in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Like New Orleans, part of Tokyo actually lies below sea level and is protected by little more than levees. One of the major junctions for Tokyo Metro rail lines is very close to it, and some simulations have shown that if the levees are breached, the entire system would flood.
  • A conference to consider methods of resuming suspended train service in the Tokyo metropolitan area after a disaster. This conference is intended to gather reports of what the railway companies in the Tokyo area did during the quake and its aftermath, and to learn how long it took to resume all suspended trains, how the passengers were dealt with in the interim, what other problems arose and how these challenges can be dealt with in future disasters.
  • A conference to explore methods to evacuate passengers in case of a tsunami. While this has the most current applicability for what happened in Tohoku, it could be a consideration for a future event in Tokyo. This conference will receive reports about how passengers were evacuated, what problems arose before and during the evacuations of these trains and how they can be dealt with in future disasters.



Chris Edwards

Chris Edwards, a U.K. resident traveling in Japan, took this

photo after his train was halted and evacuated in Tokyo

following the March 11 Great Tohuku Earthquake.

For more on the photographer's recollections of that moment,

visit our blog.

It began far out at sea, in a little-watched segment of a fault off Sendai, Japan. It reached land first as sound, the bass drum roll of heaven, amped up so that even hundreds of miles away the sound blotted everything else out, pushed against ribs, even before the earth beneath began to shake. Later measurements showed March 11’s Great Tohuku Earthquake moved the entire island of Honshu 8 feet closer to the U.S. and released nearly 500 megatons of energy—the rough equivalent of half of all the officially acknowledged nuclear weapons on earth.

The sound of the quake itself was not audible as far away as Tokyo some 200 miles to the south, but the vibrations traveled in seconds. Buildings shook, some lost tiles  and sheathing. There was damage at Tokyo Disneyland, located in Chiba  prefecture (the Japanese equivalent of provinces), and every earthquake detector in the whole Kanto area and beyond registered the seismic waves. Some train stations outside Tokyo were in places that lost power entirely as Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) substations were affected by the Fukushima nuclear reactor shutdown and were unable to switch quickly enough to other sources.

It was 2:46 p.m. on a Friday, three hours before most of Tokyo’s huge population of office workers would head home. The transit system was busy with typical off-peak riders, such as shoppers, tourists and children returning from school. With the confirmed detection of a major earthquake (the exact magnitude was, at first, underestimated), all of the major trains were shut down on the spot by operators whether they had power or not.

Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Tokyo office workers look at the smoke rising over the skyline after

the earthquake struck.

In a report by the United Nations Secretariat for International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), the near collapse of infrastructure (electricity, telecom, transportation and water) was termed a “synchronous failure.” The idea of synchronous failure in such a highly modern, hard-wired society may seem counterintuitive. We are always told that modern technological society is more adaptable, more redundant, better able to cope with the unexpected. The Internet was partly designed to serve as series of redundant nodes in the event of a nuclear attack.

And of all places, Tokyo, with its huge LED displays and bright-as-daylight-even-at-night intersections, has so often served as the ultimate showplace: Here is how the future will look and how it will work. But the earthquake kicked it over as easily as Godzilla wreaked havoc on cardboard and plaster versions of Tokyo in one of the old movies. Those modern pieces of infrastructure—all hooked together like nerves and circuits to make the city actually run—failed. Sometimes they failed singly, sometimes in groups, but altogether they left a very large metro- politan area minus much of its vital infrastructure, including, of course, the rail systems that weave Tokyo and the larger Kanto area together.

Power Loss Tips Dominos

Although the electricity did not completely fail in the city, it did in many places throughout the greater Kanto region, which includes Tokyo and a half-dozen surrounding prefectures. Where it failed, however, it did not simply turn off the lights. Homes and offices with Internet phones lost communications because servers lost power. Laptops with batteries and certain wireless connections fared better initially, but in many places the power was off far longer than the life of the average mobile phone or laptop battery. The mobile phone network (Japan has 96.8 percent mobile penetration) collapsed partly due to the inability of the system to cope with the number of calls and partly due to the loss of power, which left many mobile base stations with nothing but their own standby batteries.

Tokyo is a city that is dependant upon commuters traveling in or around the city by train, far more than even New York does. Those trains circle the city and have hundreds of underground stations as well as a large number of overhead lines. They are in turn fed by a huge network of commuter lines from the greater Kanto area all the way up to Tohoku (the northern quarter of Japan’s largest island, Honshu), the epicenter of the quake.

Of course, there are cars and buses, but their total capacity is a fraction of what the trains carry. When the trains are stopped in their tracks, as they were, there are no immediate replacements, or even remotely foreseeable replacements. And when the trains are stopped, there are passengers immediately at risk, and there is no possibility of restarting them without first clearing the systems—a procedure that should be done by manual inspection of track beds to see if the rails are buckled, fractured or otherwise weakened. In this case, the procedure had to be carried out in the midst of ongoing, large magnitude aftershocks.

In less than one hour after the initial quake there were three aftershocks of magnitude 7 or greater (7.0 at 3:06 p.m., 7.4 at 3:15 p.m. and 7.2 at 3:26 p.m.). Any one of those could have counted as a major quake itself. All were hitting as evacuation attempts had begun, each posing additional hazards, some obvious, some not. Earthquake damage can be immediate or cumulative. In Tokyo, where even the initial damage to tracks, tunnels and overhead railways was not immediately known, each large aftershock raised the possibility that minor damage could become major, and major damage could become catastrophic.

Transit Operators Proceed with Caution

The main island of Honshu’s electric grid divided into two separate and independently functioning zones, with the Fujigawa River in Shizuoka Prefecture and the Itoigawa River in Niigata Prefecture forming the borders. This setup meant that although there was spare power on the western side of Honshu, there were no lines capable of carrying it to the areas that had lost power. A total of three transformer stations still have a fraction of the capacity they had before the earthquake. In response, the flashing billboards that illuminated some of Tokyo’s most famous districts went dark to conserve power.

Getty Images

The giant television screens are turned off to preserve

electricity in Shibuya, Tokyo’s famed fashion center, a week

after the earthquake.

One immediate effect of the power loss, of course, was to strand millions of people who would ordinarily have been headed home later that afternoon in offices across Tokyo, without any immediate means of communicating with family or friends. The other immediate effect was that all the trains in the Tokyo Metro and Japan Railway (JR) systems shut down, stranding trains across a large area. Narita Airport, the main international airport in the Tokyo area was also shut down.

Toshiake Kogure, manager of the Technology Section in the Safety Affairs Department of Tokyo Metro, said 176 of its trains were operating as the first shock hit at 2:46 p.m. An emergency stop order was immediately transmitted via the railway radio system.

“This enabled all train engineers to apply emergency braking systems,” Kogure said. “The second, stronger shock resulted in an automatic power shutoff throughout the system. We had to restore our own signal system power, but after that was restored, we proceeded the trains that were between stations to the next station at a speed of 5 kph or less. This slow speed allows the train to be stopped instantly if something is seen to be wrong or the line is broken or otherwise damaged.”

According to Kogure, Tokyo Metro’s dedicated communications systems were not damaged and the transit company did not call for assistance from police, fire or other emergency crews. He noted that moving the trains at 5 kph was an improvised response.

“We train personnel how to evacuate from trains and stations and how to assist passengers, and we test that the automatic earthquake signal/alarm systems in the crew cabins of the trains are in good working order,” he said.

The ‘Long Walk Home’

Once the train systems were shut down, all of the crowds being evacuated from offices, residences, hotels, etc., in Tokyo, had to be steered away from the train stations, both a crowd control and a logistical problem.
General announcements were made over the loudspeakers in the stations but were inaudible due to all of the people and ambient noise. Railway personnel did their best to verbally share instructions to the crowds and used bullhorns just outside some stations. The JR system alone handles 35 Greater Tokyo and Kanto area lines in addition to five Shinkansen lines (also known as “bullet trains”). Millions of riders were moving onto the streets to find that the transit systems had shut down.

In a survey conducted by Japanese research company Survey Research Center Co., Ltd. one month later, 30 percent of over 2,000 respondents reported that they had walked home. Some walked within Tokyo, others out to Chiba, Kanagawa or Saitama. The time it took to get back varied between an hour and a half and more than
12 hours.

Getty Images

Concerned people flood into the streets of Tokyo’s West

Shinjuku district moments after the earthquake.

That was the experience of Ushioda Steven, visiting from the U.S. Steven’s train was at a station on the line to Shinagawa, when the car, in relation to the platform, began to go up and down a couple of feet in each direction. “No one screamed, but there was a lot of chatter,” Steven said. “Some people got off immediately, eventually everyone did, and we were told to wait, the train would continue in a while. But it did not, so I went up the street. I could not reach my girl- friend or my father, so I just walked for hours, [and] finally managed to make a call back to the U.S.”

In fact, although roughly one-third did walk home, another survey found that about 20 percent did not get home that night. It is unclear what percentage of those respondents were traveling into areas where there was no train service or power, how many were fortunate enough to get a hotel room, or were just unable to get beyond a certain point until the next morning.

The almost self-guided nature of the “long walk home,” which involved millions of people, is typical of the day’s events (including the evacuation of the transit systems). While there were emergency crews on the streets of Tokyo, and personnel to open public places as rest stops, there was, as yet, no national or general mobilization of the armed forces. And when there was, they were needed for the very urgent tasks at Fukushima, searching for victims of the tsunami and clearing highways.

The population was not so much left to its own devices as it was that the authorities relied on the population not to panic and to help each other, at least during that first night. Many restaurants stayed open and served soup and food until their supplies ran out.

Key roadways were also rendered impassable. Many highways would not be reopened until after the Ground Self Defense Forces had been mobilized to help with clearing them.

However, the trains that had been stopped within the various systems posed a very different set of problems. The passengers and crew, spread across the entire metro area, had to be evacuated.

This was done without any government assistance. According to a department head in the Emergency Services Section of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the city government cooperated at ground level in such matters as helping wards set up emergency shelters, opening up certain public facilities for use and helping to direct crowds away from transit stations that had been closed. However, the official confirmed that no emergency, fire, police or paramedics were dispatched directly to the transit stations or facilities, nor were any requested.

The long walk home has already proved to be a small bonanza for a Japanese company that had previously published street atlases with the best earthquake escape routes, complete with useful information like public restrooms and possible hazards along the way. More than 150,000 copies have reportedly sold since the quake and in July, one of the company’s subsidiaries launched a smartphone app version that shows the user’s coordinates by GPS and indicates the best route to take home.

“Bullet Trains” Safely Halted

JR runs 35 train lines within Greater Tokyo and Kanto including the famous Yamanote Green Circle Line and others that connect East and West Tokyo and stretch way into the suburbs, to other cities, such as Yokohama, and well up into other prefectures in Kanto (such as Utsunomiya, the capital of Tochigi Prefecture). It also operates the Shinkansens that travel the northern route, up into the Tohoku region (including the areas worst hit by the
tsunami) and the local train lines.

The Japanese Ministry of Infrastructure, Land and Transportation (MILT) lists 957 trains that were within a 30 km (18 miles) radius of Tokyo. MILT estimates the trains were carrying 190,000-plus passengers at the time the quake struck. Of those trains, 613 trains were actually at stations (either on their route or at their end terminals) and another 344 were between stations when the quake hit. Of those, 134 trains had to evacuate passengers along the rails on foot. Published reports also cite 27 Shinkansens that were actually traveling the routes in the Tohoku region but were stopped and evacuated without injury or loss, though there was substantial damage to various rail lines and trackbeds.

The Shinkansens represent a special case. In the Tohuku region, their routes do not follow the coast, and their trackbed is special and hardened. However, a Shinkansen traveling at top speed (near 200 mph) requires 3-4 miles to come to a full stop.

A total emergency braking maneuver would result in a catastrophic high speed derailment. However, the Shinkansens that were in/around the 30 km radius of Tokyo would not have been traveling at top speed and would not have required the same time and distance to decelerate to a complete stop. All of the Shinkansens outside the 30km radius were successfully stopped and evacuated without incident.

Views on the Ground

The Diet (Japan’s parliament) was in session as the quake hit. In the main parliament hall, a very large crystal chandelier began to swing violently as the walls shook. The building was evacuated and a national emergency command center set up within four minutes. By 3:37 there was an emergency meeting of the top advisers to the Prime Minister. Ten minutes before, the first of three waves had already struck Fukushima, and a larger tsunami had hit Sendai and points further south. Six months later, now former Prime Minister Kan would reveal in interviews that the worst case contingency that was considered was a complete evacuation of an area 250 km south of Fukushima, including all of Kanto—a total of 35 million people, or half the total population of Honshu.

Isabell Von Rein

Stunned riders crowd around a TV inside Tokyo’s Ueno Station for news

about the earthquake.

The disaster, the synchronous failure, had in fact begun before anyone had time to react. In Tokyo, however, most people did not know anything about what was happening further north. They knew what was happening around them.

Isabell von Rein, an exchange student originally from Leipzig, Germany, was at the Hard Rock Café at Ueno Station with her brother, who had come to visit her a few days earlier.

“We did not hear anything before. There was a kind of jolt, hard. I joked with my brother that there was an earthquake, but the shaking continued and several people inside the café ran out, and other people started screaming,” she said. “Then the café staff told everyone to get out of the café. Most people were standing in the main hall or just outside the plaza. There was no panic, but there was confusion.”

The hostel she and her brother were staying in was about 2 miles away in Akihabara, so they  walked back. “All of the convenience stores were being emptied,” she said. “There were only toys and drinks with alcohol left.”

The hostel had not lost power or phone service. After reaching her parents in Germany, they told both children to return as quickly as possible. However, Narita International Airport, which handles the majority of international traffic in and out of Japan, had been closed and evacuated Friday night. (Several U.S. flagged airliners were permitted to land at a nearby U.S. military base under a special agreement, a government spokesperson confirmed.)

Isabell Von Rein

Commuters queue on the street outside a Tokyo rail station

after the earthquake.

“The next day, getting to Narita, we had to take three separate side lines as direct service was not available. The airport was filled with people, very chaotic and we wound up sleeping there that night,” von Rein said. “On Sunday, we were finally able to get seats on a flight to Vietnam, where we were able to transit for a flight back to Frankfurt.”

Hajime Saito, a Systems Engineer with an applied robotics company in Tsukuba, was in Chiba (about 18 miles west of Tokyo) for a meeting sponsored by the Society of Mechanical Engineering when the building began to shake.

“It was not just the jolt from the usual earthquake or tremor, it was a rolling motion that went on and on,” Saito said. “People began to scream and we threw open the doors of the hall to let people out as quickly as possible. Outside, I could see that there was no power for at least 3 to 4 kilometers. I was also concerned about liquefaction from such a prolonged quake with aftershocks coming so frequently.”

Liquefaction is a physical process in which saturated soils exposed to extreme stress or repeated vibrations in certain frequencies, such as earthquakes, begin to behave like liquids. The results are devastating for any structures unless they have support piers all the way down into the bedrock. In an area like Chiba, where so much development was done on reclaimed rice fields and manmade lands without support piers, the threat was imminent. Liquefaction was observed at Uriyaso and Abiko in Chiba and Kuki in Saitama Prefecture. A part of Tokyo Disneyworld had to be shut down because of liquefaction in one of the parking lots, according to a government official.

“I decided the best way was to walk into Tokyo, where I hoped there would be power, and I would be better able to judge what to do next,” Saito said. “Walking the 30 kilometers took about five hours, so I was in Tokyo before
10 p.m. By then the hotels were filled, but there were Tokyo Metro Government personnel on hand and they opened the Tokyo International Forum for people who needed to rest.”

Saito has family in Yokohama, which had not lost power. He was able to reach there the next day and then to return to Tsukuba on a Tsukuba Express train, run very slowly and only as a local.

Creating Their Own Luck

According to MILT, trains operating in the Tokyo region are equipped with automatic shutdown mechanisms, and, when these are not operating, the standard procedure is for a train engineer to stop the vehicle and report on their situation and location. All of these reports are conveyed to an emergency center which acts as a clearinghouse for information, a dispatcher of specialists and control center for the system. This was the way it had been practiced and prepared for based on previous quakes and predicted scenarios.

AP Photo/Koji Sasahara

Riders walk on elevated tracks after the earthquake

halted train service.

Once the trains have been halted, there are several factors that determine what will happen next: the objective conditions (in this case, the quake and aftershocks), the train engineer’s assessment of track conditions, the information reaching the emergency center, the immediate needs of the passengers and the availability of emergency or rescue crews if they are needed.

As Kogure of Tokyo Metro noted, the steps taken by the railway company were influenced by training they had conducted for various situations, a strong familiarity with the rail systems and a very necessary element of improvisation. MILT, which oversees the local commuter and long-distance railways, is now conducting a thorough evaluation of what went according to plan, what improvisation was necessary, and what infrastructure and procedures must be improved in order to handle future emergencies (see sidebar at top right).

Joe Zearfoss, a senior consultant with Aon Global Risk Consulting who has specialized in rail transportation risk analysis for over 20 years, was impressed by the level of order that the transit operators maintained, given the potential for so much more to go wrong. He credited their handling of the situation largely to the experience level and professionalism of the regional transit companies’ employees.

“Despite the overwhelming nature of the disaster, their command and control was intact and they were individually and collectively organized,” Zearfoss said. “It is clearly a success story, but that kind of success does not happen accidentally. There had to have been a structure in place that was flexible enough to allow it to happen. And that never happens by accident. That happens when drills and exercises are continuously followed up by good critiques.”

Zearfoss pointed the decision to proceed the trains at 5 kph as an example of the kind of experience-based improvisation that helped keep people calm and safe.

“That is a clear indication of a risk assessment made under pressure, even made on the fly, but one that takes into account that the prime goal is to get the people in the trains to the safest possible point in the safest possible manner,” he said. He added that walking on the side in a tunnel with active power is not the safest way to evacuate riders, particularly in a situation where there are continuing strong aftershocks.

“There were certainly elements of luck that entered into it—the number of trains that were already in stations and only had to let passengers out, the time of day, and certainly the fact that they retained the ability to communicate between particular crews, stations and sub-command or command centers,” Zearfoss said. “It was not a crisis that self-resolved, but it was a crisis where the elements to resolve it were, fortunately, in place and/or well deployed. And there are certainly lessons in that.”

Richard P. Greenfield is a freelance writer based in Japan.

InTransition would like to acknowledge Kiwa Wakabayashi and Maki Isozaki for providing their time and assistance with interpretation and translation for this story.

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