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Impending mass retirement pushes JR West to automation

Driverless trains and shortened timetables to help fill gap of 4,000 workers

JR West has tested automated trains on the Osaka Loop Line, but operation is less smooth and energy-efficient compared to a human engineer. (Photo by Mitsutoshi Masano)

OSAKA -- With nearly 20% of on-site staff set to hit retirement age in the next five years, West Japan Railway has begun preparing for a future with a much-reduced workforce, looking to use technology to lighten the load on its remaining employees.

Labor shortages loom across a range of jobs, including engineers, conductors, station staff and maintenance workers. JR West had about 19,000 employees in such positions as of April 1, including those rehired after reaching the retirement age of 60, down by 500 from five years earlier.

Roughly 4,000 of these workers are expected to retire within the next five years, and few veteran staffers are available to replace them -- the result of hiring cutbacks after the 1987 privatization and breakup of the former Japanese National Railways. JR West has just 670 employees in the 50 to 54 age range, including managerial staff.

The company is turning to automation as a solution. It has conducted field tests of an automated train on the Osaka Loop Line, with no operator handling the accelerator or brakes. The trials found that while the system can control the train's speed according to plan, it leaves something to be desired in terms of energy efficient operation and passenger comfort.

JR West plans to introduce automated trains eventually on two routes where there are no crossings, including the Osaka Loop Line. But it has yet to set a solid time frame, citing the need to work out how to handle emergency situations such as passenger evacuations.

Looming retirements are particularly problematic when it comes to track work and maintenance.

A looming shortage of maintenance workers will complicate labor-intensive jobs like rail replacement. (Photo by Hirofumi Kanaoka)

On a drizzly July night on the JR Kyoto line, near Ibaraki Station, a crew of workers replaced old rails along a 200-meter stretch of track, easily swapping in the 10-ton-plus hunks of metal with the help of 20 pieces of specialized equipment.

About 40 workers were involved in the job, including both subcontractors and JR group employees. The process of welding in the new rails for a smoother ride took about five hours, with workers starting just after the last train and finishing shortly before the first one arrived the following morning.

Railway operators conduct such nighttime work on an almost daily basis, but they increasingly lack the staff to handle it as their personnel ages and the work itself becomes less regular. Maintenance personnel across the JR group dropped about 20% between 2008 and 2018.

To address this, JR West looks to have machines take on work now handled by humans.

The company plans to spend 11.7 billion yen ($111 million) between fiscal 2020 and fiscal 2022 on new track-maintenance equipment, including four so-called rail grinders that smooth out irregularities and remove damage on rails. The machines extend their usable life, reducing overall time spent on replacement by 30%, according to JR West.

The company is also considering moving up the end of the train timetable, leaving more time per day for maintenance work while increasing the number of days off per year. It has set up a project team with maintenance and scheduling representatives to consider changes that could take effect as early as next spring.

"We'll balance mechanization and securing more time for work" to deal with the personnel shortage, President Kazuaki Hasegawa said.

This would mark the first time for JR West to significantly push up the closing time for daily service, and inconvenienced riders will need a good explanation. But such an adjustment may not be as problematic as it would have been a few years ago.

A push in Japan to change overtime-heavy work practices has reduced late-night ridership. The number of passengers at Osaka Station between midnight and 1 a.m. dropped 17% from fiscal 2013 to fiscal 2018.

And "the coronavirus crisis will further accelerate work-style reform," Hasegawa said.

Companies in the JR group are scrambling for ways to make the rail business model more sustainable. JR West has begun considering introducing higher fares at peak times to reduce congestion, as has East Japan Railway, which is also weighing ending service earlier in the day.

The mass retirements come on top of a heavy blow to the industry from the coronavirus outbreak. JR West's revenue from rail transport plunged 70% on the year in the April-June quarter, and Hasegawa predicts that it will not return to normal even after the pandemic subsides.

"The changes in riders' lifestyles may stick," he said.

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