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News Navigator: How fast can a bullet train go in Japan?

The prototype of the "ALFA-X," the next generation of shinkansen high-speed train, is seen in Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, on May 16, 2019. (Mainichi/Daisuke Wada)

The Mainichi Shimbun answers some common questions readers may have about the maximum speed of Japan's famous high-speed bullet trains, or "shinkansen," and just how much quicker they might go in the future.

Question: Is Japan's shinkansen network aiming to be the fastest railway in the world?

Answer: The East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) is developing a commercial train with a maximum operating speed of 360 kilometers per hour. From May this year, a prototype of the "ALFA-X," billed as the next generation of high-speed bullet trains, has begun test runs on the Tohoku Shinkansen Line. It appears JR East wants to make its operation a reality by fiscal 2030, when the Hokkaido Shinkansen Line is set to be extended to Sapporo in Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost prefecture. In the testing phase, the aim is to reach a blistering 400 kilometers per hour.

Q: Which country has the fastest railway in the world right now?

A: That would be China. The Fuxing trains in operation on the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway since September 2017 run at 350 kilometers per hour. Before now, other services there ran at the same speed, but a collision involving two high-speed trains in Zhejiang Province in 2011 led authorities to reduce the operating speed down to 300 kilometers. In Japan, the current fastest bullet train is the Hayabusa supreexpress on the Tohoku Shinkansen, which reaches top speeds of 320 kilometers per hour.

Q: There was a time when Japan was the fastest in the world though, right?

A: When it commenced operations in 1964, the Tokaido Shinkansen was the fastest in the world at 210 kilometers per hour. It was called the "super express dream." The Sanyo Shinkansen held the record in 1997, when it started operating some services at 300 kilometers per hour. The Tokaido Shinkansen, which has many steep curves on the line, currently runs at a maximum speed of 285 kilometers per hour. The Chuo Shinkansen set to open in 2027, which uses magnetic levitation technology (known as Superconducting Maglev, or SCMAGLEV) that differs from the country's current high-speed infrastructure, will be able to run at 500 kilometers an hour.

Q: Is this next generation of high-speed trains going to travel as fast as 360 kilometers per hour in Hokkaido?

A: Under present circumstances, trains running north from Morioka, Iwate Prefecture in northeastern Japan, are limited to a maximum operating speed of 260 kilometers per hour. After the breakup and privatization of Japanese National Railways in 1987, three of the new companies, JR East, Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Central) and West Japan Railway Co. (JR West), have carried out improvement measures including noise reduction. These efforts have allowed for speed increases on the Tokaido, Sanyo, Tohoku and Joetsu Shinkansen lines. But on lines implemented under central government initiatives after privatization, including the Hokkaido, Hokuriku, and Kyushu Shinkansen lines, along with the Tohoku Shinkansen north from Morioka, the maximum speed is set at 260 kilometers per hour. But if the companies were to consult with the central government and carry out countermeasures for noise, maybe they could go even faster.

(Japanese original by Keigetsu Hirai, City News Department)

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