Adapting to climate change in Japan: a railway perspective

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Sarah Greenham
Sarah Greenham

Sarah Greenham, PhD Student in Civil Engineering talks about what we can learn from other countries’ approach to resilience and adaptation.

We can already see, as outlined in Rachel Fisher’s blog, some of the impact climate change has on railway networks: rail buckles, landslips and flood damage, to name a few. Facing future climate norms, such as hotter, drier summers and milder, wetter winters, could lead to severe disruptions on rail services if nothing is done to adapt to it. As trains are a low carbon mode of travel, encouraging more people to use it will help decarbonise the transport sector. The UK railway sector therefore should prepare for both increased demand and climate change, and comparing other nations’ actions is a useful tool for decision making.

So, why look at Japan?

Firstly, Japan is a global leader in railway infrastructure – its railways are renowned for their speed, service and punctuality. One train company made international news in 2017 for accidentally departing a train 20 seconds earlier than scheduled!

Secondly, Japan’s population has a very high dependency on railway infrastructure. In the highly populated cities, people live in small apartments with little provision for car ownership. Railway network privatization post-1987 led to competitive fare rates between companies serving similar routes – some employers even expense employees for their commutes. An attractive option!

Thirdly, Japanese railway networks function despite facing numerous natural hazards. The country is prone to earthquakes, it gets subjected to strong typhoons July-October, and summer temperatures can sometimes reach 40℃.

How do Japanese railways manage extreme weather?

The Japanese are experienced in handling extreme weather. ‘Disaster prevention’ is a core focus area of many Japanese railway companies. Weather impacts are essentially ‘engineered out’ of many railway networks, especially on subways. Huge mechanical ventilation systems cool tunnels, platforms and carriages. Giant water stop plates, shutters and doors are installed at tunnel openings and station entrances to block out flood water. There are even reported plans to raise the ground height of a depot to avoid future flood damage from typhoons.

In contrast to the UK, Japanese railway operators own all the infrastructure associated with their network. They are therefore responsible for implementing measures to protect their income and profits through business continuity – especially given that passenger safety is their highest priority.

Figure 1. Flood damage to the Hokuriku Shinkansen (bullet train) at Nagano depot, following Typhoon Hagibis in October 2019.
Figure 1. Flood damage to the Hokuriku Shinkansen (bullet train) at Nagano depot, following Typhoon Hagibis in October 2019.

But what about climate change adaptation?

Japan, like any country, faces its own unique climate change risks. Temperatures are rising faster than the global average. The number of days where maximum temperatures reach 30℃ or even 35℃ are increasing. Heavy rainfall is decreasing in frequency but increasing in intensity. Its National Adaptation Plan categorises different sectors’ risks to climate change – but little is understood regarding Japan’s infrastructure due to a lack of historic cases. Consequently, the term ‘adaptation’ can be hard to find in corporate strategies.

Disaster risk planning could be underpinning what would otherwise be climate change adaptation activities. Could the lack of examples be due to effective disaster risk infrastructure already in place?

Figure 2. Annual number of days where maximum temperature is 35℃ or higher (hot days) in Japan (1910-2019). The blue line shows the 5-year moving average, and the red line shows the long-term trend. (Source: Japan Meteorological Agency)
Figure 2. Annual number of days where maximum temperature is 35℃ or higher (hot days) in Japan (1910-2019). The blue line shows the 5-year moving average, and the red line shows the long-term trend. (Source: Japan Meteorological Agency)

Conclusion
Japanese railway companies are well equipped to handle extreme weather. Some strategic and practical disaster risk prevention approaches are quite possibly adaptation in disguise. Some Japanese approaches could be considered for the UK railways of the future.

Acknowledgements
Sarah’s contribution stems from her research experience during two separate 2-month funded placements in Tokyo, Japan: The JSPS Summer Program at The University of Tokyo’s International Project Laboratory in 2019 and RISEN at Japan Rail’s RTRI in 2020.

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