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Faster cleaning helped Japan railway boost shinkansen train operations

A new N700S-series Tokaido Shinkansen bullet train is seen in the city of Obu in the central Japan prefecture of Aichi on July 1, 2020. (Mainichi/Koji Hyodo)

TOKYO -- The operator of the Tokaido Shinkansen Line, which was launched half a century ago, has changed the timetable for superfast "Nozomi" bullet trains, adding two services so that up to 12 of this type of train can run per hour during peak times.

    When combined with the slower bullet trains "Hikari" and "Kodama," there is one train leaving every 3 1/2 minutes from Tokyo during peak hours. The Mainichi Shimbun looked into how Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Central) manages such a busy train schedule, which is similar to that of the JR Yamanote Line in central Tokyo during the daytime.

    At 2:35 p.m. on a weekday in June, Nozomi No. 18 arrived at Tokyo Station platform 16. As soon as the passengers disembarked, cleaning staff got on to prepare the train for a return trip that started just 16 minutes after its arrival. Workers quickly turned the seats around to face the opposite direction, and collected any trash left on the floor. Their swift moves resembled those of skilled craftspeople. Soon after the janitors got off, the shinkansen headed to Hiroshima in southwestern Japan as Nozomi No. 95, right on schedule.

    A worker cleans the inside of a Tokaido Shinkansen bullet train at JR Tokyo Station on June 16, 2020. (Mainichi/Yoshitaka Yamamoto)

    The key to operating a maximum of 12 Nozomi shinkansen per hour is a "10-minute cleanup." Shortening the cleaning time at Tokyo Station, where many bullet trains shuttle back, plays an important role in increasing the amount of trains. The cleanup originally took 12 minutes, which had to be shortened by two minutes.

    JR Central's group company Shinkansen Maintenance Tokai Co., based in Tokyo's Chuo Ward, is in charge of the cleanup task. Yukiko Tanaka, who is a leader of the janitors, revealed, "It's even hard with just 12 minutes. When we heard that it would be shortened by two minutes, I was very shocked." Workers used a stopwatch to track the time they spent cleaning, discussed numerous times during study sessions about what tasks they could cut back on and searched again and again for more efficient methods.

    Workers first reviewed the use of a sensor device to detect whether the seats are wet, which sometimes happens due to spilled drinks and sweat. Though they had initially been scanning every seat, workers found that according to past data, there was a high chance of a wet seat if the backrest was also wet. For that reason, workers now scan the seat first and if they find it's wet they will then scan the backrest.

    Platforms are seen at Tokyo Station in this file photo taken in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on June 1, 2017. (Mainichi/Kimitaka Takeichi)

    Furthermore, janitors developed a tool they can use to sweep and mop at the same time. Their two-year efforts led them to save the two minutes. Workers had been practicing the 10-minute cleanup since October 2019, and Tanaka said with confidence, "Our quality of cleaning hasn't declined."

    However, cleanup work wasn't the only thing that needed to change at Tokyo Station. While there are six platforms for the Tokaido Shinkansen Line, the tracks merge into just two, one in each direction, as soon as trains leave the station, causing congestion for arriving and departing trains. In order to keep the trains moving smoothly, arriving trains needed to maintain their high speed as long as they could. To make this possible, the point where the trains apply the brakes was moved 40 meters closer to Tokyo Station in February 2020.

    Though this made the trains arrive only a few seconds faster, they are now able to leave Tokyo Station more swiftly. Ultimately, drivers manually apply the brakes on bullet trains, so a brake assistance system was introduced for safety to prevent trains from overrunning the platform.

    JR Central also improved functions at Shin-Osaka Station, the second largest terminal for shinkansen following Tokyo Station. It created platform No. 27 in 2013, bringing the total number of platforms to eight. Two draw-out tracks were also prepared to secure more room for trains when stopping.

    A new N700S-series Tokaido Shinkansen bullet train is seen at JR Tokyo Station on July 1, 2020. (Mainichi/Tatsuro Tamaki)

    The bullet trains have also been upgraded. The 700 series, which made their debut in 1999 and boasted a maximum speed of 270 kilometers per hour, were all retired in March 2020. Now the N700 series and the N700A and N700S types, which all boast a maximum speed of 285 kilometers per hour, are in operation.

    Achieving the congested timetable took gradual time reductions of functions, in some cases by seconds. The new timetable was originally planned to be introduced in March, but was postponed to Aug. 7, shortly before the Obon holiday period, after shinkansen users decreased due to the effects of the novel coronavirus. Though demand for bullet train reservations for the Obon holidays is sluggish, it seems that the increase in train services also serves as a way to avoid the "three Cs" of closed spaces, crowded places and close contact settings.

    Tokaido Shinkansen trains have been operating since 1964, carrying a total of some 6 billion passengers. Nozomi, which connects Tokyo and Shin-Osaka stations the fastest, was first introduced in March 1992. Until then, Hikari had been the fastest shinkansen, taking two hours and 49 minutes from Tokyo Station to Shin-Osaka Station. The time was shortened by 19 minutes when Nozomi, which has a better speed performance, was first introduced. Now, it only takes two hours and 21 minutes for the journey.

    The number of trains also gradually increased, and while only one Nozomi train was running per hour at first, up to 10 trains had been running since 2014. But because bullet trains would sometimes be packed on Friday evenings with many passengers working away from their families and holidaymakers, JR Central decided to introduce the current 12-train timetable.

    Nozomi trains, like the Hikari and Kodama, have a total of 1,323 seats each. JR Central currently runs a maximum of 455 bullet trains a day on the Tokaido Shinkansen Line, with a total of 601,965 seats available, the highest figures ever.

    (Japanese original by Yoshitaka Yamamoto, City News Department)

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