Transportation Infrastructure Damage in Japan

The damage inflicted on infrastructure by an earthquake or tsunami is is fundamentally different than that caused by a hurricane. In particular, while transportation following a hurricane is primarily inhibited by debris resulting from wind damage, an earthquake or tsunami causes substantial damage to infrastructure, including highways, railroads, airports and ferry terminals. Transportation infrastructure damage impacts personal mobility, the movement of goods and the entire global supply chain. In Japan, the earthquake impacted transportation infrastructure in Iwate, Miyage and Fukushima (see figure below). Damage included washed out roadways and highways, damaged bridges, damaged ferry terminals, buried airports and railroads. Details follow.


Japan has been aggressively building its highway transportation infrastructure since 1963 when the first expressway opened. Since then, Japan has constructed over 7,600 km of expressways used by more than 1,600 million vehicles each year (see figure below). Highway damage was m ost extensive in Sendai, where major sections were damaged by the earthquake then buried with tsunami debris.


The Japan Railways (JR Group) is made up of six regional passenger railway companies, and one nationwide freight railway company, JR Freight. Together they operate a nationwide network of urban, regional and interregional trains. The East Japan Railway Company (JR East) was the hardest hit and has suspended service due to the loss of electricity required to run the trains.


Japan’s ferry system consists of seven major routes connecting major cities throughout the country. Most domestic ferries transport people, vehicles and cargo. While shorter routes are served by small ships, able to carry a couple of cars and a few dozens of passengers, large liners are employed on longer routes. Ferry terminal damage in Sendai has resulted in disrupted service along the east coast of Japan.


Most Japan airports reopened on Wednesday, March 16. Sendai Airport is buried under a sea of mud and remains closed. All other major Japanese airports are open, but at least one–Tokyo Haneda International–is banning general aviation aircraft operations until March 18.


Effects on Transportation, rail and ferry info:
Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism:
Japan Railways Group:

See IEM’s website for more information on our capabilities and experience in mutli-modal transportation safety and security.


Author: David Willauer, Manager, Transportation & Geospatial Technologies Division