WHEN he is on duty, Osamu Onodera drives one kilometre in 11 seconds, or 10kms in two minutes, that is, at a speed of 320km/hour. This is the equivalent of getting from Kuala Lumpur to Penang in an hour, if we are on Japan’s high speed train, the Shinkansen.
Onodera highlights the speed of the train he drives to illustrate the responsibilities he shoulders as a Shinkansen driver. It is a job he holds with a strong sense of purpose, for the success of the high speed train is a national pride.
The 51-year-old Onodera knows the operations of the Shinkansen well because he is also the traffic controller who manages passenger traffic as well as the smooth running of the trains.
His dedication to his duties and his passengers’ well-being embody the spirit of the Japanese work ethics.
“This railway was completed through the wisdom and efforts of the Japanese people,” is the inscription on a plaque at the Tokyo Railway Station where the Shinkansen made its inaugural run in 1964.
The success of the Shinkansen trains 20 years after the end of World War Two, rejuvenated and gave new confidence to the Japanese. The bullet train era marked the beginning of Japan’s technological supremacy and embodied its culture of excellence.
The high speed railway service began 53 years ago on 1 October 1964, with the launch of the Tokaido Shinkansen line between Tokyo and Osaka. It opened in time for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and reduced the travelling time between the two major cities from 6 hours 40 minutes to 4 hours. In 1965, the journey was shortened to 3 hours 10 minutes, and now to 2 hours 35 minutes.
Japan is constantly upgrading its high speed train technology. Since 2014, the bullet trains regularly run at 320km/hour and are the fastest in the world, along with those in France and Germany.
The Shinkansen network currently totals 2,764.6km of rail lines. Its annual cumulative passenger load is more than 10 billion, the highest in the world for high speed trains.
Passenger safety is always on Onodera’s mind when he is on the job.
“When I drive the Shinkansen, I always think of the passengers. This is a fundamental concept to ensure their safety. In addition, if you think about your passengers, you can provide better services to them. For instance, we always reply with a smile when passengers ask any questions,” says Onodera.
He is also keen to emphasise that commuters can take the high speed train without fear as there have been no fatal accidents since the Shinkansen’s introduction in 1964.
In its 53-year history, the Shinkansen has had an impeccable safety record with zero fatalities due to accidents or derailments or even during natural disasters such as earthquakes and typhoons.
Japan is the first country to build dedicated lines for its high speed trains. This has enabled the Shinkansen trains to avoid conventional trains that may slow them down. It is also a safety feature to avoid collision and accidents.
The Shinkansen’s zero fatality record is a goal that drivers like Onodera work hard to maintain. It is a motivation that is backed by meticulous attention and hard work.
“As high-speed train drivers, we always monitor the signals and computers to calculate the driving time in order to ensure safe operations. We pay attention at all times, but especially during the arrival and departure of the trains,” says Onodera.
Ensuring the punctuality of the trains is also another crucial task for drivers like Onodera because the Shinkansen delay is calculated not in minutes, but in seconds.
In 2014, its average delay was 54 seconds which included delays due to natural disasters. Its record shortest average delay was in 1997, which clocked only 18 seconds.
Onodera has many years of experience working as a conductor and a driver on conventional trains. Onodera’s ambition was to drive the Shinkansen which is more demanding because its high speed requires higher safety level.
“In order to be a Shinkansen driver, it is necessary to pass the toughest mental and physical examinations. The first priority is good health and to stay focussed,” says Onodera.
The formula for drivers to maintain the Shinkansen’s high standard of excellence lies in sheer hard work. Onodera never takes his job performance for granted.
“Daily training is the most important. It improves your skills especially if you listen to constructive criticisms from others. It is also important to hear from the seniors about their experiences and discuss safety issues with different people. The daily training has ensured our r record of zero accidents,” stresses Onodera.
He does not find it difficult to keep abreast with technological advancements on the Shinkansen as he is well-grounded in its basic philosophy.
“The philosophy has not changed even with the advancement of technology. The brakes and signals have since been digitalized and improved to enable the system to run at higher speeds. As the basic philosophy has not changed since its beginning, we are always able to keep up with technological developments.”
Onodera also believes his performance at work is influenced by other aspects of his life. He says it’s important to have a stable life and to have his family’s support.
“In order to maintain safe driving, it is important to have a good rest and a stable family life. The support from my family is extremely important,” says Onodera, whose work schedule includes weekends and overnight shifts, as well as early hours and late nights. And at the end of a work day, it is the satisfaction of getting passengers safely to their destinations that makes his hard work worthwhile.