Japan’s Shinkansen network is not only the oldest high-speed network in the world, it is also the safest, with zero passenger fatalities since the launch of the very first line in 1964. Its safety and punctuality record are peerless, so it’s not surprising that countries planning high-speed rail projects look to Japan for guidance.

The UK, US and Australia are all in various stages of development with their own high-speed rail systems. In the UK, plans for a 530-kilometre Y-shaped network connecting London with Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds are currently making its way through parliament. On the other side of the planet, Australia is considering a 1,750-kilometre network, taking in the east coast cities of Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane. Then there is the USA, which is working on an 830-kilometre corridor between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The US in particular is looking to learn from Japan’s successful application of high-speed technology, having already established a partnership with Japan’s rail sector. California’s High-Speed Rail Authority has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport to open up a dialogue to help the US learn how to design, build, operate and maintain a high-speed railway.

Central Japan Railway Company (JR Central) is also hoping to develop its most modern invention, the 500km/h Superconducting Maglev, on the US east coast between New York and Washington. The technology is so new that even Japan is still 13 years away from opening its first line between Tokyo and Nagoya.

Developing superpowers have also realised the benefits of this kind of knowledge sharing partnership, with India establishing a similar relationship with Japan.

Photo: Vacclav / Shutterstock.com.
Photo: Vacclav / Shutterstock.com.

The progress of these schemes has been fairly slow. It was announced in 2009 that Japan was setting up an agency to seek out export opportunities for the country’s Shinkansen technology. Five years later and we’re no closer to seeing anything resembling a full Shinkansen system built outside of Japan.

“The export of the Shinkansen hasn’t really happened so far,” said Dr Christopher P. Hood, director of the Cardiff Japanese Studies Centre at the city’s university, who has written a number of research papers on the Shinkansen’s place in Japanese society.

“Taiwan used a hybrid system. China just took a handful of trains and made the rest itself. Nobody has gone for the full Shinkansen system – and it is a system, not just the train. The UK can’t due to the potential for European access. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons to be learnt from Japan.”

Numerous research papers and newspaper articles point to the high reliability, safety and comfort of the Shinkansen as the benchmark of a quality high-speed rail system and as a way of highlighting the shortcomings of their own national rail systems.

The question is; What exactly can the authorities developing high-speed rail projects in these countries pick up from Japan’s bullet trains?

Masters of innovation

The executive vice president of the Central Japan Railway Company (JR Central) Dr Morimura spoke at last year’s AusRail event about the link between the Shinkansen’s 100 per cent safety record and its high level of efficiency.

The key to this is the perpetual renewal of the Shinkansen’s rolling stock and signalling systems, according to Morimura. Japan has not stopped developing its automatic train control (ATC) systems and trains. Lightweight, high-capacity rolling stock has made the Shinkansen [pullquote align=”right”]The export of the Shinkansen hasn’t really happened so far… Nobody has gone for the full Shinkansen system – and it is a system, not just the train.[/pullquote]one of the most financially sound railway systems. Swapping steel for aluminium has made Shinkansen body shells lighter than conventional cars. Lighter cars are easier to move and therefore reduce the system’s overall energy consumption and track wear, but despite them being lighter they actually have a greater capacity, allowing operators to reduce the cost per seat and offer cheaper fares.

Distributed power systems, where the traction motors are distributed across the length of the train rather than at either end – something that is still in its infancy on some European high-speed systems, has also contributed to the Shinkansen’s success in reducing track wear and boosting capacity.

Japan’s decades of research and experience building high-speed rail systems obviously help with delivering technical performance, but what about some of the other challenges faced by major railway projects? Aside from the economic argument, environmental issues, such as noise pollution, create additional obstacles for project teams. Japan has managed to significantly improve noise pollution levels on its network since the 60s. A good example is Japan’s solution to the ‘tunnel boom’ phenomena.

As high-speed trains enter tunnels they create pressure waves as the air hits the nose of the train and is pushed forward, resulting in a large boom as the train emerges out of the other end. Designers looked at the way Kingfishers dive into the water to catch their prey leaving just the tinniest of ripples on the surface. The solution was to develop longer, more pointed noses, like the beak of a Kingfisher that would slice through the air in front of the train.

For California’s high-speed ambitions, one of the Shinkansen’s safety systems could offer a solution to mitigating earthquake damage. Japan has developed what it calls the Urgent Earthquake Detection and Alarm System (UrEDAS) which uses sensors to detect quakes and automatically stop trains in at-risk areas. Sitting right above the San Andreas Fault Line, California’s future HSL, which could be extended beyond Los Angeles to San Diego, would be susceptible to potentially catastrophic seismic activity.

Bullet trains in the UK

The parallels between Britain’s future high-speed network and the Shinkansen were the topic of a talk by Christian Bocci from architects Weston Williamson and Partners at Global AirRail in November last year.

Photo: Go-Ahead.
Class 395 Javelin train. Photo: Go-Ahead.

Although substantially longer than HS2, the scale of the Shinkansen is comparable. In particular, both are island nations with high population densities and relatively short station-to-station distances.

In fact, the Shinkansen has already made it to the UK. The South East already has its own miniature ‘bullet train’ railway which, among other things, has demonstrated the popularity of high-speed services with passengers. Between the launch of the Hitachi Class 395 Javelin trains in 2009 and the end of 2012, Southeastern saw passenger journeys increase by 25 per cent.

HS2 could well build on this adoption of Japanese technology. A sound recording of Germany’s high-speed ICE trains has been used as the simulated train noise for HS2 because of its use of a distributed power system. If Hitachi chooses to bid for the HS2 rolling stock contract it will be a strong contender, having already supplied trains for HS1 and with the construction of a new assembly plant in the north of England well underway.

In terms of the question ‘What can we learn from Japan?’, Dr Hood felt that those operating the systems could benefit from looking at the Shinkansen.

“I don’t think that the importance of training varies that much from country to country, but in Japan it is very clear that it is taken seriously,” Hood added.

“One just has to look at the facilities that the Shinkansen operating companies have to realise that they spend a lot of money on training. The staff also spend a lot of time in training. The set up at some of these companies is like visiting a small private university.”

The benefits of having Japanese consultants seem clear. Issues like interoperability and cost mean the Shinkansen system doesn’t work everywhere, but elements of its design and engineering are already evident around the world.