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East Japan Railway rolls out telecommuter cars on bullet trains

Pilot project helps workers keep in touch while on the road

A JR East bullet train travels on the Tohoku shinkansen line. (Photo courtesy of JR East)

TOKYO -- Workers can telecommute while they commute on East Japan Railway's new telework train cars, which entered trials Monday.

Passengers on certain trains on the Tohoku shinkansen bullet train line, which runs between Tokyo and Shin-Aomori stations, can use these dedicated cars for phone calls and videoconferencing, with free access to Wi-Fi routers to help maintain a stable connection.

The trials run on weekdays through Feb. 26 on certain sections of the line, with about eight to 10 trains per day featuring these cars. Riders can move to the designated cars to take advantage of their features at no additional cost.

The rise in companies promoting working from home and cutting down on business trips amid the coronavirus crisis has sent ridership plunging on JR East trains. The company looks to see how much demand there may be for onboard remote work after the pandemic ends.

"I'm glad to be able to use my commuting time productively," said a 39-year-old passenger on a train that departed from Tokyo Station around 8 a.m. The rider, who works for a manufacturing company, said he would use the telework car to call a colleague to coordinate while en route to Sendai for a meeting.

To reduce the risk of sensitive information being overheard, JR East plays white noise in the designated telework cars from speakers developed in partnership with Yamaha. It also offers a separate internet connection from the free Wi-Fi available throughout the train.

Passengers in the telework cars can use free Wi-Fi routers to help ensure a stable connection. (Photo by Shohei Nomoto)

December passenger traffic on JR East's shinkansen languished at around 40% of the year-earlier figure. The operator expects revenue from the trains, excluding commuter passes, to remain at about 80% of pre-coronavirus levels even after COVID-19 is defeated.

So JR East seeks new opportunities created by changing workstyles, such as the increase in telecommuting. It is considering launching other new services as well.

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