Steady progress being made in Japanese rail routes aided by AI

TOKYO (The Japan News/ANN) – As the railway industry is confronted with a manpower shortage, a movement is under way to explore ways to adopt robotics and artificial intelligence.

The seven Japan Railways Group companies have seen their combined workforce engaged in on-site operations – such as operating trains and doing maintenance checkups – halve over the past 30 years.

On the other hand, the number of passengers continues to increase, particularly in big cities, while the needs of passengers, including foreigners, have diversified. Could the latest technology become the industry’s saviour?

It is before dawn on January 7, and at Osaki Station on the JR Yamanote Line, a train driver presses a button after counting down “three, two, one.” The train slowly starts to move.

During this autonomous driving test, which JR East conducted after the last train of the day had gone, the train repeatedly stopped, started and accelerated while making two circuits of the loop line’s outer circle, which runs clockwise. JR East aims to start the practical implementation of autonomous train driving by 2027.

A robot cleans the floor within the premises of Kita-Senju Station. – PHOTOS: THE JAPAN NEWS/ANN
A train using an autonomous driving system runs on the JR Yamanote Line in central Tokyo

The reason JR East is introducing the autonomous system is a manpower shortage. According to the Statistical Yearbook of Railway Statistics of the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, those engaged in on-site operations at the seven JR Group companies combined stood at about 165,000 in fiscal 1987, when the state-owned Japanese National Railways was privatised and divided into seven railway companies – six passenger companies and one freight.

As a result of streamlining its business, which included decreasing recruitment, the number of such workers had dropped to fewer than 100,000 in fiscal 2005 and fell as low as about 85,000 in fiscal 2016.

Private railway companies and public-run subway operators have also reduced the number of workers engaged in on-site operations by about 16,000 overall since fiscal 1987, with the number totalling about 70,000 in fiscal 2016.

At JR East, massive numbers have started retiring at rates of about 3,000 workers annually, roughly twice as many as the number of new recruits per year.

The Transport Ministry considers the manpower shortage to be an issue faced by the entire railway industry, including private railway companies. The ministry believes factors behind it include competition for workers with such industries as manufacturing and construction; a trend among young workers in the railway industry to quit their jobs; and an increase in the number of young people who tend to avoid so-called 3K jobs, or kitanai, kiken and kitsui – dirty, dangerous and demanding jobs.

Tokyu Corp has been promoting the introduction of a robotic device for maintenance checkups of its electrical system, a device that twines itself snake-like around electric wires or cables to detect any damage or other abnormalities.

Although the company has increased the employment quota for electric divisions, the number of people who applied to join these divisions in the company in fiscal 2019 dropped by 10 per cent from the previous fiscal year. “Amid a manpower shortage, handing technical expertise down to the next generation could become difficult. The age of having robotics supplement what human workers can do has come,” an official in charge at the private railway company said.

Tobu Building Management Co, a subsidiary of Tobu Railway Co., has since last November been conducting an experiment using a robot to clean floors within the premises of Kita-Senju Station in Tokyo.

One of its employees revealed: “The workers on-site are mainly those in their 50s or 60s. During the busiest times, we need about 15 workers, but young people hardly join.”

One of the railroad companies even created an organisation specialising in the development of robotics. In 2017, JR East established JRE Robotics Station, a limited liability partnership, together with six other companies including its group firms. The aim is to advance technological development designed to meet conditions peculiar to railway stations, such as busy foot traffic and lots of stairs.

Since last month, the company has been conducting a verification experiment at six major stations, including Tokyo and Shinjuku, in which robots handle information services for station users.

When a user asks a palm-sized robot about places they want to go such as a platform or store located within the station premises, it answers in languages such as Japanese, English or Chinese. An official at the partnership said, “By amassing experiments, we would like to enhance its precision.”