Financially troubled railway operators say they are unable to cope with government pressure to install security cameras on new trains, sparked by a series of high-profile assaults on passengers.
The Department for Transport began considering making it mandatory for all new train cars to have on-board cameras for crime prevention purposes late last year, which upset operators in rural areas about this requirement.
Far fewer passengers travel on smaller local lines than their urban counterparts, raising the question of whether the costly countermeasure will ultimately be cost-effective for these smaller rail lines.
MORE VULNERABLE RURAL LINES
As part of a security drill on Dec. 10 at Miyoshi Station in Miyoshi, Hiroshima Prefecture, along the JR Geibi Line, a man armed with a knife showed up on the train.
The training scenario was staged after a passenger was stabbed in a Keio Line train car in Tokyo in October. Under the guidance of Hiroshima Prefectural Police personnel, the personnel learned how to handle suspicious individuals and deal with a situation like this.
West Japan Railway Co. (JR West), operator of the Geibi line, which crosses the mountainous areas of Hiroshima and Okayama prefectures in the Chugoku region, is alarmed at the possibility of such attacks due to problems specific to the operation of rural train lines .
Some sections of the Geibi line may be closed due to reduced ridership. Most of its trains on the line consist of only one to two cars and are operated without a driver on board.
Stations are far apart along the line, and many older passengers have difficulty getting on and off trains.
For these reasons, they are particularly vulnerable to attackers.
“Passengers could more easily be confined to trains along rural lines compared to urban railways, which makes it difficult for them to escape,” said Shuji Fukunaga, head of JR West’s Miyoshi branch.
Despite these concerns, only four cars have been fitted with security cameras on a trial basis along the Geibi line and other conventional JR routes in the five Chugoku prefectures.
JR West said it would install more surveillance cameras on its trains, but for now the policy is meant to only apply to certain routes in the Kansai region that have a lot of passengers.
THE SMALLER OPERATORS ARE TALKING ABOUT COSTS
Transport Minister Tetsuo Saito announced plans on Dec. 3 to require railway companies to fit new cars with surveillance cameras in response to high-profile violent crimes such as the Keio line stabbing.
But rural railways were perplexed by how deep they will have to dip into their coffers given their profitability on rural lines.
Installing security cameras entails huge expenses. East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) spent 11 billion yen ($95.3 million) to introduce cameras to 8,300 train cars in the greater Tokyo metropolitan area in 2018. While JR East said no not disclose “the cost of a single car”, it is estimated to cost more than one million yen.
The budgetary burden is particularly heavy for small local lines. In fiscal 2020, 90% of the nation’s railways reported losses due to the widespread impact of the novel coronavirus outbreak.
All six JR companies were in the red in fiscal 2020, including JR West which posted a record loss. The situation for them is so difficult, officials said, that they are less and less likely to make big investments in local rail networks.
Hokkaido Railway Co. (JR Hokkaido) and Shikoku Railway Co. (JR Shikoku) also lack security cameras on most of their cars except for some express trains.
“The issue (of anti-crime cameras) was brought to the table, but we had no choice but to tackle even more pressing challenges first,” said a JR representative. Hokkaido, in financial difficulty.
“No new conventional car has been produced for many years due to the decrease in passenger numbers,” said a spokesperson for JR Shikoku. “We have no plans to introduce any new cars at this time.”
Saito said that trains with fewer cars that are generally available in rural areas will be exempted from the requirement to install security cameras and that the transport ministry will consider offering subsidies to local operators whose financial base is weaker.
But even that was not enough to keep the rural lines from making noise.
“Even if all the costs of equipping trains with crime prevention cameras would be covered by grants, the circumstances would still be very difficult for us,” said an executive from a third-party rail company that operates along the sea. from Japan.
This is due to additional camera maintenance costs. Additionally, train operators will need to take steps to properly manage recorded data and prevent image leaks, so they might need dedicated staff for this.
“What is the risk of the type of incidents that they (authorities) believe exist along local lines with fewer passengers?” said the executive of the railway company. “Forcing us to take countermeasures designed only considering the circumstances in Tokyo will simply cause problems.”
Another issue concerns the type of camera system to be incorporated.
The Department of Transport expects train operators to put in place a monitoring system that allows conductors and conductors to instantly review conditions on board, given that in the case of the Keio line, the crew has had trouble confirming what was going on.
Still, it is apparently common for train operators who have surveillance cameras on their trains to keep the data on SD memory cards and other media storage devices so that recorded video can be checked later.
A representative of the Astram Line in Hiroshima, which has an on-board camera system, said the transit system’s surveillance framework was not put into operation to prevent acts of violence from mass like the knife attack.
“We are emphasizing this as a way to stop crimes like mugging and pickpocketing,” the Astram Line rep said.
The introduction of better cameras and other new surveillance modes would further increase their expenses.
OTHER OPTIONS AVAILABLE
Seiji Abe, professor of traffic policy at Kansai University, pointed out that high-quality cameras aren’t the first thing to weigh in to boost security.
“Crime cameras won’t be needed for shorter lines with less risk of heinous incidents,” Abe said, although he also acknowledged surveillance cameras will be among the options for train operators. well funded.
The Keio Line train where the attack happened had 10 cars. But trains in rural areas usually only have one or two cars. Even in urban areas like Hiroshima and Sapporo, where more people use trains, the most common have only four to eight cars.
“Crew members will be able to sufficiently assess onboard conditions without cameras,” Abe said. “Operators should start with more achievable steps, such as patrolling crew and police cars more frequently and educating passengers about the location of emergency buttons on train carriages.”