If you never had the Japanese down as a nation of animal-lovers, get this – on the Japanese rail network Animals Rule.
Monkeys, dogs, goats, lobsters (lobsters?!) and a tortoise proudly hold the official title of stationmaster at rail depots around the country. The most famous to occupy the post in recent years was a cat called Tama, who died in 2015 at the good old age of 16. Her funeral ‘was attended by thousands of local commuters and admirers hailing from near and far. Following a period of mourning, the newly minted Honorable Eternal Stationmaster was replaced by Nitama, a former apprentice of Tama who beat out other candidates for the job partially based on her “willingness to wear a hat.”‘
The only thing vaguely similar of which we can boast here in the UK, is the day last April when a large herd of cows took it upon themselves to congregate on Hever station platform in Kent. Strangely, in spite of having a wealth of applicants to choose from, Network Rail declined to appoint any of them to their staff.
But Network Rail does have one heartening animal trick up its sleeve. Paradoxical, startling, but nonetheless true – the rail network and surrounding land managed by NR is possibly the most biodiverse wildlife haven in the UK. An unseen Shangri-la for rare and endangered species such as the large blue butterfly, the dormouse, the osprey, the natterjack toad and the great crested newt. If we were permitted access, which of course we are not, we might also find an abundance of lizards, grass snakes, slow worms, water voles, deer, foxes, badgers, and bats.
But – and it’s a very big but – the network is both haven and hazard. Between 2003/4 and 2013/14 the number of animals struck by trains tripled, and the unfortunate animals logging up the highest death count are deer.
“Deer have excellent peripheral vision, but most deer incidents take place while the beasts are traversing the railway as part of their natural movement pattern between habitats at dawn/dusk – a time when more trains are running as part of the morning and evening peaks.”¹
What is Network Rail doing to prevent animals getting on the tracks?
Not an awful lot it seems. They “educate land owners about the dangers and disruption caused by animal incursions, emphasising the need to keep gates securely closed and encouraging them to use additional measures such as electric fencing.”
And that’s it. Good as far as it goes, and fine for domestic animals: horses, sheep and cattle – but if we look for NR’s ideas on keeping deer and other wildlife off the tracks, we draw a blank. This in spite of their desire to minimise collisions and costly disruptions to the rail timetable.
Over in Japan, they do things differently
Yes, certainly there is the same imperative not to let collisions with animals mess up the schedule. (Magnify that sixty-fold. The Japanese don’t have a name for super-efficiency for nothing, and Japanese trains are precise to the second. Last November a rail company felt compelled to issue a public apology for one of its trains departing 20 seconds early, at 9.44.20, instead of 9.44.40 – can you imagine it!)
And yes, as in the UK, the most frequent victims of death by train are deer. The deer are “reportedly attracted to the lines due to a need for iron in their diets, licking up small iron filings left behind by the grinding of train wheels on the tracks.”
But in Japan it’s not just about the timetable. As their unlikely choice of stationmasters/mistresses attest, in the world of the locomotive the Japanese have a care for animals. And that extends to the wild kind, whose interaction with trains is too often fatal.
Creatures as small as turtles can come a cropper, as well as cause delays, so one rail company has worked with wildlife experts to create safe crossings in the form of special turtle trenches running underneath the tracks. Rail workers even carry out regular inspections to see if the little guys need an extra helping hand.
For the bigger animals the usual ropes, fences, and flashing lights have all been tried – without success. Now, displaying a creativity sadly lacking in Network Rail, the Japanese are coming up with all kinds of imaginative ways to prevent costly timetable disruptions and animal deaths.
One of the most out there was someone’s brainwave of mixing water with lion dung garnered from a safari park, and spraying the solution along the track. Hey presto, it worked! Not one deer was run over. Even though Japanese deer have never seen a lion, it seems they recognise the smell of an apex predator when they come across it.
The dung spray though 100% effective, did have several drawbacks:
- The spraying was very labour-intensive, impractical on a larger scale
- It got washed away in the rain
- And finally, it REEKED! Railway staff, passengers, and folk living near the line alike, all complained
Based on the observation that the deer are drawn to the iron from the lines, one company developed another effective method to divert the deer – definitely less off-the-wall and decidedly less offensive than the lion poop – ‘yukuru’, simple salt-lick blocks containing the vital ingredient iron.
When it really hit home
One night in 2015 a family of deer were crossing the tracks when a young fawn at the rear of the group was struck by a train and killed. Yuji Hikita, an employee of Kintetsu Railway Co. saw it happening. And continued to watch while a parent deer stood motionless, staring down at the fallen fawn for a full 40 minutes. After witnessing the whole heart-wrenching scene, he determined to find a way to stop such a sorrowful event happening again.
Hikita’s focus was on finding a way to help the deer cross the tracks in safety, rather than simply blocking them out.
He made an on-the-ground study of the deers’ movements. Finding hoof prints and dung (deer droppings, not lion!) helped him establish which spots the animals used as crossing points. The line was enclosed with 2 metre-high netting, but crossing places were left open. In the crossing gaps, ultrasonic waves formed temporary barriers at the riskiest times, dawn and dusk, but were switched off overnight when the trains stopped running.
The ultrasonic waves, inaudible to us, have the advantage of not being a terrible assault on human senses like the lion poop.
Hikita’s ingenious plan won him a 2017 Good Design Award.“This is an excellent example of how railway companies can tackle the deer-train collision problem from the deer’s perspective,” a judge for the Good Design Award said in 2017, “and it owes to the countless number sacrificed in the accidents.”
Meanwhile researchers at the RTRI (Railway Technical Research Institute) have been testing trains that snort like a deer and bark like a dog. With the usual Japanese precision and attention to detail, the formula is thus: a three-second burst of deer-snort noises, followed by 20 seconds of dog-barking.
The deer-snorting noises replicate deer’s alarm warnings to each other, which would alert any real deer getting too close to the tracks. The dogs’ barking finishes the job by scaring them away. And the snort-bark formula works. In fact, it’s proving so successful the Institute is considering setting up stationary snort-bark devices along the tracks near crossing places favoured by the deer.
Network Rail, are you listening?
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