Speedy Recovery of the Transportation Network

The magnitude 9.0 earthquake and the horrific tsunami that followed devastated the transportation network along much of the Pacific coast of eastern Honshū. Bridges were swept away and roads caved in, severing railway lines and major national highways and bringing about a state of paralysis. Nevertheless, it was essential to get emergency relief supplies through to people in the worst-hit areas.

The magnitude 9.0 earthquake and the horrific tsunami that followed devastated the transportation network along much of the Pacific coast of eastern Honshū. Bridges were swept away and roads caved in, severing railway lines and major national highways and bringing about a state of paralysis. Nevertheless, it was essential to get emergency relief supplies through to people in the worst-hit areas. Work to restore the transportation network started almost immediately after the disaster, led by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism. Within days of the disaster, emergency supplies were getting through to the disaster areas, and road, rail, and air transportation routes had been 90 percent restored by the end of April.

Progress in Restoring the Transportation Network

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The first stage of the strategy put in place by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism was to make sure that the entire length of the Tōhoku Expressway and National Route 4 was passable to traffic. This major artery runs south to north from Tokyo to Aomori along the inland part of the region, which suffered relatively little damage. Next, 16 routes were opened up stretching out from various points on this major north-south artery and reaching east to the coastal areas that were worst hit by the tsunami. The plan was called Kushinoha Sakusen, or Operation Toothcomb. (By March 15, just four days after the earthquake, 15 of the 16 routes were already open to traffic, making it possible to get large amounts of emergency relief supplies to the disaster areas. In addition, almost the entire length of the coastal National Route 45 was also made passable by the end of March, using temporary bridges and detour routes.)

Work to repair the expressways is the responsibility of the East Nippon Expressway Company. Immediate repairs on the Tōhoku Expressway and other major arteries were completed before dawn on March 12, the day after the earthquake, allowing aid vehicles belonging to the Self-Defense Forces and other agencies to get through to the disaster areas. The Jōban Expressway close to the epicenter was badly damaged in the disaster, but repair work proceeded steadily and on March 21, ten days after the disaster, the entire length of the highway was made passable to regular vehicles, with the exception of the exclusion zone around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

On the Tōhoku Shinkansen bullet train line, damage was confirmed in approximately 1,200 places, including severed overhead power lines and broken station facilities. On local lines, 23 coastal area stations were washed away, along with 65 sections of track totaling approximately 60km. In all, damage was reported in approximately 4,400 places. Even so, services were running at 80% of regular levels just one month later. On April 29, regular services were restored along the entire length of the Tōhoku Shinkansen between Tokyo and Shin-Aomori.

Sendai Airport was so badly swamped by the tsunami on March 11 that some people believed it would never be used again. But with the help of the US Armed Forces, reconstruction work proceeded at a remarkable pace, and the airport reopened on a temporary domestic schedule on April 13. International flights are expected to resume in July.

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The stretch of the Jōban Expressway between Mito and Naka was severely damaged in the disaster, but reopened to traffic on March 17.