Life on Tracks

Written by Kamini Devadass, Be Movement issue 3 – JAPAN, published March 2013

The significance of the railway tracks as a lifeline and a means of hope carve deep into the consciousness of Masahiko Mochizuki, Managing Director of Sanriku Tetsudo (Railways), Company Limited.

After the 2011 Tsunami struck the Iwate Prefecture, the railway tracks became the only safe paths that survivors could walk on as they navigated through a devastated landscape strewn with dangerous debris of broken glass and shards. Hundreds of survivors formed ant-like trails to bigger towns in hope of reaching food and water supplies and, more importantly, in search of loved ones.

Since then Mochizuki, who joined the company just nine months before the earthquake and tsunami, has spent his every waking moment after the disasters rebuilding the railway tracks and rejuvenating hope among the people.

“We don’t have time to be feeling hopeless,” he says.

Sanriku Tetsudo (Railways), founded in 1981 in Iwate Prefecture, had their railcars, tracks, bridges and stations on both their north and south lines damaged by the catastrophe, but it is a “tsunami experienced railway company”. Having over 30 years of experience in the railroad industry, Mochizuki was unfazed by the biggest challenge in his career and able to promptly assess the situation.

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Undeterred by the blackout in the office, he and his employees quickly analysed the situation and decided to use the train as an office as it was diesel generated.

“We saw the situation was all right and we went to the train. Exactly what we brought into the train was just a plain whiteboard and notebook. Just one of each to the train,” he states fully aware that technology may malfunction.

Using emergency phones connected to a special system that allows calls to be made even when networks are down, Mochizuki and his team received live minute-by-minute updates from those assessing the damage to the tracks, which they meticulously recorded by hand.

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Such precision and organisation was necessary. Mochizuki says, “[The] reason we are putting all the time in details is because we are [currently] emotionally mixed and people may say ‘I didn’t say it,’ or ‘I didn’t hear it.’ To avoid conflict we wrote down in order [the information received], so this really helps to keep us [on track].” For six days straight , until March 16, 5 p.m., they were working in the railcar, taking shifts to go home.

Much elbow grease was needed to clear the tracks, especially those between Taro and Miyako. Due to the destruction of various modes of transport, Mochizuki felt that the people needed the train now more than ever. He says, “They [the people affected] need it. We thought this is what we needed to do. Particles of sand, glass [and] rubble were dangerous for people to walk on.”

“You see people walking on the tracks. Some people walked for 13 kilometres,” he says. Taking four hours by foot, residents walked to Miyako to buy food and also check if their loved ones there were doing fine.

Driven by the hardships of the locals, Mochizuki knew he had to act quickly. “Because the size of the earthquake had quite a big impact on us, I immediately thought that the damage may be enormous. In my mind, I kept constantly thinking how to operate [the trains again],” he states.

His biggest concern was “the lack of information.” Even though they were receiving data from their emergency phones, “… it was still not 100% [verified] information.” He and his team wanted to know with certainty what was going on with the railways as it was their business to do so.

Being able to examine what had happened when the tsunami alert had softened from ”warning” to ”advisory”, on March 13 at 9.52 p.m. “… they decided to do whatever they can to make the train run and they decided to go for it.”

Seeing that it was possible to restore some parts of the train service within a short period of time, Mochizuki says, “Only 5.8 kilometres [of tracks] were washed away … We had a total of 16 railcars and only three were affected. There were no railcars washed away, but three were damaged. The rest were still good. If we [did the temporary train service well], we could make [full restoration] successful by asking for funds. I knew I could restore it,” he adds confidently.

Without thinking whether it was possible or not, in his mind Mochizuki outlined how he would request funding of approximately JPY 10.8 billion. He knew he had to obtain approval from the eight municipality officials and work his way up to the Iwate Prefecture government officials and then to the central government, but first he had to clear the debris on the tracks.

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On March 15 he made a request to the mayor of Miyako, “I am going to run the railway [and] run the train between Miyako and Taro. I would like to [make a request] to you to make arrangements to remove the debris with the efforts of the self-defence force.” Understanding the urgency of the situation, the mayor made arrangements within three days. He then visited the eight mayors of the municipalities along the train line to obtain their approval and managed to get all eight to consent to his request by 19 April 2011.

“I wanted to prove that we are looking at the same aim [train service restoration]; we are aiming at the same goal,” Mochizuki says.

After meeting with the mayors and the prefectural government authorities, Mochizuki then made an appointment with the Minister of Land and Transportation and Infrastructure and the Chief Cabinet Secretary and then Vice-Minister of Reconstruction, asking for their support.

Everything was finalised by November 12, 2011. The entire process took him eight months.

Although requesting for funds required Mochizuki to burn the candles at both ends, not once did he feel weighed down by it. “I saw many people having hardship without commuter rails. This is one of the reasons I could come so far,” he explains.

“I didn’t think it was hopeless, because it is a fact that I still could use the line to [begin] operation [as not all tracks were destroyed],” he says revealing his strength of character.

He tells of how he lifted the spirits of the people through trains, “When we resumed partial service, a test drive was needed. For the test drive, I ordered the driver to keep the horn on all the time. It is because there might be people walking on the track. That’s one thing. The second thing is that, if the train is running with the horn all the time, it will let them know that the train will be back.” He continues, “The driver reported to me that some people were waving [to him] while they were clearing the debris and that to me [was something].”

Seeing the dedication the locals had to restore the train service motivated Mochizuki. He describes, “I also saw people cleaning up the platform at the train station. They know the train is not coming [and] they know that there [are] no passenger[s], but they keep cleaning the place. When you see something like that, you have to go on. You have to. You have to go on.”

His determination and perseverance drew support from the government officials and by April 2014 the train service is expected to be fully restored, with funding for railcars coming from Kuwait. His story is one of the more successful ones, as other lines run by competitors are still behind schedule.

“I did it ahead of time. When people were still trying to figure out what was going on, we already knew what was planned, what to go for and what to prepare for. I went ahead of people’s steps and that is why everything came [about] so fast,” he explains.

The company also managed to save on costs since they planned ahead early and bought materials before prices went up.

The systematic steps he took and his personal experience proved their worth.

Receiving lots of support from members of the public, with some buying 1,000 train tickets to support the operation and others donating funds, Mochizuki felt on the whole everyone was “united.”

However, the reality remains that, in order for the railway to be sustainable, there must be sufficient commuters. With houses along the railway line expected to take at least a decade to be rebuilt, the running trains serve more as a symbol of hope than a mode of transport for some areas. Regardless, Mochizuki feels that by keeping the train running it shows that life goes on and will eventually be back on track. Mochizuki hopes that foreigners and locals alike will come to take a ride on the train and support the recovery process.

The company has even reintroduced the “kotatsu train” for the winter, equipped with a heated table and tatami flooring to keep the chilly weather at bay. Passengers will also be able to experience a little of the folklore from namahages – demons who admonish children for their bad behaviour.

“We welcome people all around the world to learn what has happened, what we did and what we are going to do,” Mochizuki says.

A train aficionado, Mochizuki has elevated the status of trains from a simple mode of transportation to one of hope.

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