INTRO: With plans in hand to extend the Tohoku and Hokuriku Shinkansen, JR-East has calculated that to compete with the airlines it must raise the current maximum speed from 275 km/h to 360 km/h, prompting research into noise reduction, bogie stability and ride comfort

BYLINE: Takashi Endo

Director, Advanced Railway System Development Centre, East Japan Railway Co

IN DECEMBER 2002 JR-East opened a 97 km extension of the Tohoku Shinkansen from Morioka to Hachinohe. The extension immediately proved very successful, and the number of passengers using the new route is 50% higher than on the conventional line before the extension was built. This underlines the importance of high speed rail travel for long-distance trips between Japanese cities.

Other planned extensions will take the Shinkansen network yet further from Tokyo. Inevitably, this means that the new lines will face strong competition from domestic airlines. If the Shinkansen is to continue to enjoy success, it is important that rail becomes the passenger’s first choice for long-distance trips. This means shortening journey times, while ensuring that passenger comfort is maintained and that the rail service remains in harmony with the environment. This is why JR-East decided to develop trains able to run at 360 km/h in commercial service.

The length of the Shinkansen network now totals 2230 route-km, of which JR-East operates nearly half at 1052·9 route-km. JR-East’s Shinkansen trains now serve five destinations from Tokyo, linking many of the major cities in eastern Japan.

When JR-East was established in 1987, the volume of traffic on its Shinkansen routes was 12·1 billion passenger-km. Annual traffic has since increased by 52·5% to reach 18·3 billion passenger-km in 2002 (Fig 1). Annual income from the Shinkansen has risen by 46·6% from ´311·8bn in 1987 to ´458·4bn in 2001 and ´457·4bn in 2002. In some cases, rail’s market share exceeded that of air, leading to some airlines withdrawing their services.

In the near future, JR-East plans to extend the Tohoku Shinkansen from Hachinohe to a new station at Shin Aomori. This extension is expected to open within 10 years. Similarly, the Hokuriku Shinkansen is to be extended beyond the present terminus at Nagano to reach Toyama over the same timescale.

The distance from Tokyo to Aomori is around 670 km, and at the present speed of 275 km/h trains would cover this in 3h 15min. Airlines currently hold 57% of the market on this route, and for rail to match or beat this, the journey time will have to be less than 3h. We estimate that if journey times are cut to around 2h 30min, the airlines might even concede defeat and withdraw from the market. This could happen if Shinkansen services were to run at a maximum speed of 360 km/h, and as a result this is now a firm objective.

The Series E2 trains used on the Tohoku Shinkansen are limited to 275 km/h, although their maximum design speed is 315 km/h. The main limitations are the rules governing environmental standards such as lineside noise. Increasing the maximum speed is not simply a question of achieving stable and safe running - we must also consider the environmental impact.

Future rolling stock concept

We identified four fundamental requirements for the next generation of Shinkansen rolling stock: