The high-tech instruments can run diagnostics on tracks and carriages even while the train is in service, negating the inconvenience to passengers under conventional methods.
The “smart maintenance” framework may offer more precise analyses than manual checks, and it will give JR East more opportunities to spot potential signs of failure.
“With advanced technologies, we would like to establish a framework for maintenance and inspection that could exceed our conventional methods, in addition to dealing with the labor shortage,” a JR East official said.
Currently, JR East’s railway maintenance and inspection operations are conducted on a periodic basis. Workers visually check the tracks while walking along the railways. Other workers climb on the trains’ roofs or crawl under their carriages to check for problems.
But time is running out for these workers.
According to the 2015 census, about 24 percent of around 25,000 maintenance and inspection workers for railways were in their 50s, the largest age group.
Railway infrastructure is also aging, and train operators fear that a mass retirement of their workers will leave them shorthanded to ensure safety on their tracks.
Enter the E233 series train.
JR East has been running this train on the Keihin-Tohoku Line that connects Saitama and Kanagawa prefectures through eastern-central Tokyo since its trial run in 2013. It features rapid sequence cameras installed underneath the cars that can take images of the tracks even during normal commercial operations.
The diagnostic imaging system uses red light that can identify rail distortions or breaks in the track brackets and railway ties.
JR East is also introducing the E233 series on the Yamanote Line loop in central Tokyo and the Chuo Line that runs east-west through the capital.
Besides the E233 series, the E235 series debuted on the Yamanote Line in 2015 and constantly monitors the rails as well as the vehicle itself.
Different types of sensors can obtain data in 700 categories, such as the motor mechanism that opens and closes doors. JR East is studying the wealth of data collected to determine the types of changes that can cause glitches.
The Dr. Yellow trains on the Tokaido Shinkansen Line specialize in detecting abnormalities on the tracks and overhead wires through sensors. But these inspection trains can only operate when general trains are not running on the line.
Installing such sensors on passenger trains could increase the frequency of such inspections.
West Japan Railway Co. (JR West) plans to install a vehicle monitoring system on the JR Fukuchiyama Line in Fukuchiyama, Kyoto Prefecture, this spring. The system is equipped with cameras and sensors that monitor overhead wires as well as wear and tear on the train’s wheels.
The cameras also check for problems on the roof of the train, which helps reduce the risk of workers falling off during inspections.
Japan’s aging society and low birthrate are hitting railway companies.
The JR companies also have a distorted work force in terms of age as a result of cutbacks on hiring before the state-owned Japanese National Railways was privatized and became the Japan Railway Group in 1987.
JR East had about 56,000 employees as of April 2017. About 25 percent of them, or 14,000, are 55 years old or older, while about 4 percent, or 2,000, range in age from 45 to 49.
The average age of concrete bridges for trains in Japan is 56 years, according to a study in fiscal 2013 while that of tunnels is 62 years. Many of the current structures have been around for more than 100 years.
“It’s vital to streamline operations, including cutting costs, to realize appropriate maintenance management for rolling stock with an eye on the era of depopulation,” said an official at the Railway Bureau of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.
The ministry included about 290 million (US$ 2.64 million) yen in this fiscal year’s budget for subsidies for technological developments in the private railway sector, such as cameras in train drivers’ seats that automatically detect potential problems with the rails.
The transport ministry also exchanges related information with companies, research institutes and other entities.
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