view counter

Earthquake early warningJapan’s successful earthquake early warning system offers lessons to U.S. high-speed rail

Published 12 May 2016

As California and other states move forward with high-speed rail plans, some have questioned the system’s ability to withstand earthquakes. This is especially critical in California, an active quake zone. A recent research report says that valuable lessons are easily adapted from Japan’s successes with its early earthquake warning (EEW) systems. This was most recently demonstrated during the series of violent quakes that shook Japan in mid-April, 2016.

As California and other states move forward with high-speed rail plans, some have questioned the system’s ability to withstand earthquakes. This is especially critical in California, an active quake zone. A recent research report from the Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) says that valuable lessons are easily adapted from Japan’s successes with its early earthquake warning (EEW) systems. This was most recently demonstrated during the series of violent quakes that shook Japan in mid-April, 2016.

MTI says that Japan Rail developed systems to mitigate the damage to its facilities and personnel, including an early earthquake warning system, retrofitting existing facilities for seismic safety, developing more seismically resistant designs for new facilities, and holding earthquake response training and exercises for company staff and passengers.

“These systems demonstrated their value in the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 and have been further developed based on that experience,” said principal investigator Frances L. Edwards. “Researchers in California are developing an EEW system for the state, and the private sector has a few seismic sensors in place. These technologies could contribute to the safety of the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s developing system, which could emulate Japan’s best practices.” 

The JR East EEW system stops the train, prompting a response from passengers and staff. Detailed staff training in Japan was largely responsible for the subsequent lifesaving activities that moved passengers and staff out of harm’s way. There were no passenger or crew deaths on any JR East trains, including the bullet trains, during the 2011 triple disaster. For this report, the types of training and exercise activities used in Japan are evaluated for applicability to California rail systems.

That disaster’s impact and its three-fold aspects (earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear event) also provided valuable information for the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s (CHSRA) system. The insights are being leveraged and adapted to build greater safety for passengers and crew.

Scientist and specialist for the seismic detection “P Wave Sensor” system, Shunta Noda, who helped develop the early earthquake warning system for the high-speed rail in Kyushu, is part of Japan’s Railway Technical Research Institute. He and his team are currently working in collaboration with the USGS in Menlo Park to expedite the development of this innovative new earthquake early warning technology for California. Noda contributed information for MTI’s report and is helping to develop the California earthquake early warning technology.  

The MTI report explains the physics of seismic events before delving into the evolution of warning systems. It also describes the extensive training that JR East provides for its employees so they can assist during a disaster.

MT notes that JR East provided MTI’s research team with reports that are rarely available to Western researchers on EEW system performance; seismic resistance and resilience research related to columns, piers and bridges; and staff training. The authors conducted extensive EEW research through the Berkeley Seismic Laboratory, at the sites of existing installed EEW systems, and structural engineering research on seismic resistance through private engineering activities.

JR East’s Earthquake Early Warning System was invented and deployed by the Railway Technical Research Institute, which is subsidized by JR companies such as JR East, West, Central, and four smaller companies.

— Read more in Frances L. Edwards et al., Great East Japan Earthquake, JR East Mitigation Successes, and Lessons for California High-Speed Rail, MTI Report 12-37 (Mineta Transportation Institute, May 2016)