Fukushima rules and fast-track planning

An Irishman’s Diary: What we could learn from Japan

‘Amid all the origami and traditional drumming and martial arts, the single most impressive thing I saw there was a magazine outlining the latest developments in the Shinkansen.’ Photograph: iStockphoto

‘Amid all the origami and traditional drumming and martial arts, the single most impressive thing I saw there was a magazine outlining the latest developments in the Shinkansen.’ Photograph: iStockphoto

Thu, Apr 11, 2013, 06:00

You may remember a very good letter on this page two years ago proposing something called a “Fukushima Rule” for Irish public pay. It was inspired by separate but simultaneous reports elsewhere concerning the Japanese earthquake and the Moriarty tribunal.

In the wake of the former, workers at the Fukushima nuclear plant were being offered what were called “huge sums” to help fight the disaster: ie the equivalent of €862 a day. Which, in a pithy coincidence, was almost exactly what junior barristers were reported to have been paid for Moriarty.

The letter writer didn’t suggest cutting the rates of the fearless lawyers, and rightly so. After all, they too were exposed to toxic material, over a long period, and without the protective wigs and gowns considered necessary even in their regular line of work. But the Fukushima Rule would at least have set the aforementioned figure as the maximum a full- or part-time servant of the State could be paid.

I was reminded of the idea this week by news of Matthew Elderfield’s impending departure as Ireland’s financial regulator, a position offering €340,000 a year. Everybody agrees he’s done a good job in taming the “wild west” of European finance. He may well have been worth every cent of a salary that, spread over 365 days, is still comfortably higher than the Fukushima daily rate.

Even so, the fallout from the banking disaster is likely be with us for many years after he goes. And Mr Elderfield may be all the more missed here if, as seems to be widely feared among banking experts, his salary fails to attract a replacement of sufficiently high calibre.

Fukushima has been on my mind for another reason, as it happens, because last weekend I spent a couple of hours up at Farmleigh, attending something called “Experience Japan Day”. It was a very pleasant afternoon, thanks in part to an outbreak in the Phoenix Park of near-balmy weather, more in keeping with the cherry blossom festivals now being held in actual Japan.

But amid all the origami and traditional drumming and martial arts, the single most impressive thing I saw there was a magazine outlining the latest developments in the Shinkansen. Or as it’s known to you and me, the Bullet Train.

The Shinkansen is now almost half a century old, astonishingly, having begun operations in October 1964, barely 19 years after Hiroshima. Mind you, it travelled at a modest 210km an hour back then. Which, by way of comparison, is a mere 50km/h faster than the current maximum speed of Iarnród Éireann’s Intercity.

It must have been a bit quicker by 1988, when I made my only trip on a Shinkansen. In any case, it’s more like 300km/h now. And within a few years, that too will look slow. Already, in China and Korea, there are Maglev (Magnetic Levitation) trains that reach very high speeds by floating 1cm off the tracks.

But the new-generation “Superconducting Maglev”, planned to open between Tokyo and Nogoya in 2027, will run 10cm off the ground at speeds of 500km/h. This should cut the journey time between Tokyo and Nagoya to about 40 minutes. For comparison, again, those cities are slightly farther apart than Dublin and Cork.

I don’t remember much about my Shinkansen journey (yes, it passed in a blur). But retrospectively, I’m worried to learn they hadn’t yet introduced the Urgent Earthquake Detection and Alarm System (UrEDAS) back then. That didn’t come until 1992, apparently.

As UrEDAS implies, Japan being a geologically volatile country, its railway engineers have to plan for natural disasters. Here, the main challenge is leaves on the line or, occasionally, the wrong kind of snow. There, it’s earthquakes and tsunamis.

But a latter-day descendant of the UrEDAS did its job in 2011. Although a Shinkansen was badly damaged by the quake, the early-warning system allowed trains between 12 and 15 seconds to slow down safely. Nobody was killed or injured.

Indeed, in 49 years of bullet trains, there has not been a single fatality resulting from a crash or derailment. This despite the ever-growing velocity and frequency of trains, with up to 70 now running simultaneously at peak. Oh – and by the way – the average delay in journey arrival times is about six seconds.

I wonder if, Fukushima Rule or no, the Government could tempt some Japanese railway personnel to Ireland. Ideally, they would be deployed to upgrade Iarnród Éireann. But failing that, their expertise might be useful even in the banking system. Post-Elderfield, they could help keep it on the rails. Or if not actually on the rails, at least somewhere close.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com