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Business

Train troubles could derail long-term strategy

JR East's new E235 railcar incorporates a range of cutting-edge innovations.

TOKYO -- Malfunctions plaguing JR East's much-awaited new train, touted as the embodiment of its technological prowess, cast doubt on the railway operator's long-term growth strategy and overseas ambitions.

     "The troubles on the first day of service inconvenienced and worried many customers, and we once again give our sincerest apologies," President Tetsuro Tomita told a news conference Wednesday. Three stations along the Yamanote Line were affected by the glitches that forced the E235 series to suspend service on the first day. Some of the causes have yet to be determined as investigations continue.

     For a new train model to suffer major malfunctions on the first day is "pretty much unprecedented," according to a JR East official. Tomita declined to say when service will resume, noting only that the train will return only if reliable service can be guaranteed.

     The E235 showcases a host of technological innovations. While running, the train analyzes data collected via image sensors to detect flaws in the rails. Screens in overhead compartments and doors display video commercials. An updated system automatically brakes and accelerates based on speed and location, while a novel communications network called Interos relays information 10 times as fast.

     The E235 had run over some 10,000km in trials since mid-April. But full-capacity conditions were tested only in simulations. For field testing, JR East used weights reproducing a boarding rate of 40% capacity. The company said that the boarding rate at the start of Monday's maiden run exceeded 90% and that Interos, the so-called train brain, did not work as expected.

     JR East had to deal with collapsed cable poles on the Yamanote Line and severed power cables on the Keihin Tohoku Line, all at a time when the company is contending with the task of handing down technological expertise to new generations of workers. Thanks to personnel cuts and hiring restrictions adopted around the time JR East went private in 1987, 40-something workers falling between veterans and newer hires account for just 10% of the staff. The company tried to compensate by deploying information technology solutions, but Monday's events put the problem back in the spotlight.

     A subsidiary, Japan Transport Engineering, builds the E235 and seeks to win overseas orders. "This will become the test case for mass-producing railcars for cities," President Naoto Miyashita said at Monday's inaugural ceremony. But the subsequent malfunctions dealt a blow to this plan.

     E235 cars are used in just one of the Yamanote Line's 52 trains. With the suspension to have only a minimal effect on service, some say there is no need to rush the new model back into operation.

     By repairing the new systems, "we can win customers' trust," Tomita said. Putting JR East's growth strategy back on track will likely require a full comeback by the E235.

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