In the landlocked Nara prefecture of Japan, the oft-perilous issue of turtles crossing train tracks isn’t so much about why they do it as it is about how to make the reptiles’ torpid journey all the more safe.
Engineers from West Japan Railways, working alongside researchers from Suma Aqualife Park in Kobe, think they’ve solved it with the creation of custom turtle tunnels — shallow concrete trenches, really — that pass directly under the tracks, allowing shell-toting travelers to, well, get to the other side. (En route to a nearby pond, of course).
And while this crackerjack team certainly has the best interest of sluggish but determined testudines — kame in Japanese — in mind, turtle-related rail delays have also proved to be a minor headache in western Nara in recent years.
As noted by AFP, train track-crossing turtles were responsible for 13 rail disruptions in the area between 2002 and 2014 — not a ton but enough for rail authorities to take notice. And it isn’t so much a matter of the turtles being outright squashed by oncoming trains. Rather, they're falling into and getting trapped in the tight spaces between rail switches. It’s in these deadly crevices, so easily navigated by more agile fauna, that the turtles meet an untimely end as trains approach.
"When the point blades move, unfortunately they get squashed between them and die," a representative for West Japan Railways explained to AFP. "There are a lot of turtles in the area and they are simply moving from A to B. But they can cause long delays to operations so we consulted with a turtle specialist to find the best way to help them."
Since being installed near two stations in the Nara prefecture where reptile casualties/rail delays are at their highest, the U-shaped turtle express lanes — strategically located near the switch points — have helped to save 10 animals from ascending to turtle heaven while allowing rail traffic to move through the area smoothly and on time.
Additionally, workers regularly inspect the trenches on the lookout for turtles that may need further human assistance. The Japan Times notes that turtles plucked from troughs are relocated to Suma Aqualife Park.
While this all has the makings of a cute, conservation-minded illustrated children’s book, keep in mind that animals truly do rule Japanese railways. Across the country, a decent-sized menagerie — monkeys, dogs, goats, lobsters (!) and, yep, a tortoise — have been appointed as stationmasters of numerous (largely automated) railway depots.
The most famous stationmaster of them all was, until recently, a calico named Tama.
Earlier this year, Tama’s storied eight-year run as feline stationmaster of Kishi station in the Wakayama prefecture came to an end when she passed away of heart failure at the ripe old age of 16 — an impressive 80 in cat years. The funeral service held for Tama — elevated to the status of Shinto goddess in death — 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."
Via [AFP], [CityLab]