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Squeak sound of success: Japan rail workers' device scares off deer to avoid collisions

SHIZUOKA -- Numerous transport disruptions caused by collisions between trains and wild animals have been reported across Japan. A new initiative to reduce the number of such accidents between deer and trains has been conceived by front-line workers of Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Central) in a bid to operate trains safely while protecting the lives of deer.

    A herd of deer enters the tracks of the JR Minobu Line at night. (Photo courtesy of JR Central)

    In recent years, the JR Minobu Line, which runs through the mountains from eastern Shizuoka Prefecture to Yamanashi Prefecture, has been plagued by collisions between deer and trains as the habitat of these animals has expanded and their populations have increased.

    About 2 kilometers south of JR Minobu Station in Yamanashi Prefecture, around one minute before a train was set to pass, a high-pitched "squeak" sound was heard around the tracks. The sound stopped as soon as the train passed by.

    This is a "repellent sound" developed by the Railway Technical Research Institute, a public interest incorporated foundation. The aim of the sound is to keep deer away from the tracks by mixing the "squeaking warning sound" that deer use to warn their peers of danger with a dog barking, which deer dislike.

    The Minobu Line introduced a repellent sound device on a trial basis on two sections in Yamanashi Prefecture in November 2019. The proposal was made by Takaaki Morita, 25, an employee of JR Central's Minobu track maintenance section. While searching for a solution to the frequent collisions, he learned about the repellent sound. He came up with the idea of using a warning system that alerts people of approaching trains and changing its sound source to the repellent sound. Since the sound is only played when a train approaches, it prevents deer from becoming "accustomed" to it.

    This photo taken on March 4, 2021, in Minobu, Yamanashi Prefecture, shows a triangle-shaped barricade installed experimentally on the tracks of the JR Minobu Line to prevent deer from entering. (Mainichi/Rinnosuke Fukano)

    In the past, the Minobu Line has taken various measures to reduce collisions with deer. Interviews were conducted with train drivers and other employees in the field. Since 2009, the six sections with the highest number of collisions have been operated at night with trains slowed down by up to 25 kilometers per hour to allow deer the chance to escape. Since 2012, 2-meter-high fences to prevent entry have been installed at locations where collisions frequently occur. However, even after all these measures, the number of accidents with deer continued to increase.

    The most taxing task for workers when it comes to a collision with a deer is post-accident efforts. When an accident occurs, a deer lying on the ground is removed from the tracks by humans. The deer then is temporarily stored and later transported to an incineration plant.

    Michitaka Sakai, 44, the chief of the Minobu track maintenance section, said, "Many of the deer collisions occur in the mountains at night, so it is difficult for our employees to go to the site. An individual deer can weigh up to 100 kilograms, so it is hard to carry them out." He continued, "When a deer is severely damaged, it causes a lot of mental stress on the employees."

    The number of collisions on the section where the repellent sound system has been installed is currently "zero," indicating that certain achievements have been made. In addition, in March 2021 the Minobu Line became the first railroad line in Japan to install two types of anti-intrusion barricades on the tracks, one in the shape of an uneven triangle and the other in a net-like shape. They are currently working on verification of which type the deer dislike more.

    A repellent sound device (the speaker-like device in the foreground) installed along the tracks of the JR Minobu Line is seen in Minobu, Yamanashi Prefecture, on March 4, 2021. (Mainichi/Rinnosuke Fukano)

    Morita expressed his determination, "I want to protect the lives of deer and also maintain the safe transportation of railroads.

    According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism's annual "information related to railroad and tramway transportation safety," there were 821 cases of transportation disruptions caused by animals, such as suspended services and delays of 30 minutes or more for passenger trains in fiscal 2019, and the number has been steadily increasing over the past 10 years since fiscal 2010.

    As reported by JR Central, there were 196 accidents between deer and trains on the Minobu Line in fiscal 2020, an increase of more than threefold from 58 in fiscal 2010.

    The rise in the number of collisions is said to be due to several factors, including an increase in the number of deer as they are finding food easier in winter due to a decrease in snowfall caused by global warming, an expansion of their habitat area, a decline in the number of hunters, and an expansion of abandoned farmland as suitable habitat due to depopulation. Moreover, cameras installed by JR Central along the railroad tracks show deer licking the rails, suggesting that they may be entering the tracks to take in iron.

    (Japanese original by Rinnosuke Fukano, Shizuoka Bureau)

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