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New tech could speed up already famously fleet-footed Japanese bullet train cleaners

A maintenance worker is seen using the wet seat detection device in this photo provided by Central Japan Railway Co.

TOKYO -- The crews that clean every one of the some 117 Tokaido Shinkansen bullet trains that roll into Tokyo Station every day are famous for their speed and efficiency. It takes one 44-person crew just 10 minutes to clean and inspect each 16-car, 1,300-seat train, getting it ready to speed right back out again with another batch of travelers. And now, a new piece of technology could make them even faster.

    A "wet seat detection device" harnessing artificial intelligence has joined the crews to help them inspect all those seats (which, counting every train, totted up to some 152,100 seats in fiscal 2019. It's not a small job). The Mainichi Shimbun looked into how the device works and how it's used on-site.

    Though as a bullet train terminal Tokyo Station is the starting or ending point for many a journey, it really is the half-way marker for Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Central)'s bullet trains as they zip back and forth between cities in the country's west and the Japanese capital. So every train that comes in needs to be turned around fast, which is where the cleaning crews step in.

    A maintenance worker is seen using a broom with a moisture detector in this photo provided by Central Japan Railway Co.

    In their 10-minute window, one of the eight crews collects bottles and cans, replaces the seat headrest covers, wipes and sweeps the floors, takes out the garbage, and so on. The feat has been featured on TV and sometimes inspires applause from foreign tourists.

    But checking if the seats are wet is especially time-consuming and labor-intensive. On average, about two of the 1,300 seats on any arriving train are damp, from spilled drinks or rainwater dripping from umbrellas. If a simple wipe-down won't solve the problem, the sheets on the seats need to be replaced.

    The workers had used a broom with an electrode on the tip, which sounded an alarm when it touched the seat and detected moisture. But the cleaners had to bend down to use the broom for every seat, which was tough on their backs.

    Seats where moisture was detected are shown in red on a smartphone in this image provided by Central Japan Railway Co.

    The new "wet seat detection device" made its debut on Dec. 1, 2021, after two years of development. It is a rod that can be extended to up to 90 centimeters, with a thermography camera in the tip and a smartphone connected to the handle. When the workers take a picture of the seats with the camera, the wet ones show up red on the smartphone, which plays an alarm. All this allows the cleaners to stay comfortably upright as they check two or three seats at a time.

    The cleaning crews have gradually whittled down the time they need to check and clean the trains. When each seat had to be checked for moisture manually, it took 15 minutes to prepare each train. That was cut to 12 minutes when the broom with the detection function was introduced in March 2008. But the workers boosted their efficiency yet further, bringing the time down to the current 10 minutes in October 2019.

    Shortening the work also allowed JR Central to run more trains in and out of Tokyo Station. When the cleaning procedure went from 15 to 12 minutes, and then to 10, the firm increased the maximum number of "Nozomi" bullet trains per hour from 8 to 10, and then to 12. JR Central hopes that the new device will lead to even greater time savings.

    (Japanese original by Shotaro Kinoshita, Tokyo City News Department)

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