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JR East opens automated Japan bullet train test to press

In the early hours of Nov. 17, the East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) revealed an automated driving test for an E7 series shinkansen bullet train to the press, in what is said to be the first tests of their kind on commercial-use shinkansen in Japan.

    The driver's compartment on a shinkansen bullet train being operated by an automated system is seen in the city of Niigata on Nov. 17, 2021. (Mainichi/Masahiro Ogawa)

    While some parts of certain standard lines already run automated trains, the technology for bullet trains is still in the development stage. If it can be implemented broadly, it is hoped the technology will help eliminate future train driver shortages.

    The tests were run between the end of the Nov. 16 schedule and the start of Nov. 17's. Following safety checks, a 12-car shinkansen bullet train with an Automatic Train Operation (ATO) system onboard did three return trips along a 5-kilometer route between JR Niigata Station and the Niigata Shinkansen train depot on the Joetsu Shinkansen Line.

    About 20 members of the press boarded the test train departing at 1:50 a.m. The train repeatedly accelerated and decelerated, and traveled at speeds between 10 kilometers per hour and 100 kph. The 5-km route took about 10 minutes to complete, and the test train traveled back and forth along this section a total of six times.

    A JR East official checked whether the train could halt within 50 centimeters of the position it is expected to stop at, the same standard applied during normal operations. Although a train driver was in the driver's seat in case of a contingency, they had no need to take the controls while the ATO was in operation.

    A Joetsu Shinkansen Line bullet train is seen pulling into the station under the control of an automated driving system, in Chuo Ward, Niigata, on Nov. 17, 2021. (Mainichi/Masahiro Ogawa)

    The tests have been underway since late October, and Yasuaki Suzuki, deputy director of JR East's next generation transport system advancement center hailed the effort, saying, "We've had good results. The tests themselves are going well." Regarding how it feels to ride the automated service, he said, "The acceleration is almost as smooth as with a human driver, but we felt that when it comes to customer-facing operations, we need to work toward more delicate stops."

    He added, "If we can make it a reality, we can expect (ATO) to lead to flexible running of services and energy saving, as well as flexible work practices such as having staff without train driving licenses operating the trains."

    JR East's mission to make driverless trains a reality is fueled by anticipated labor shortages, and the wish to reduce human error. The company has said, however, that it has no firm timeframe for when automated trains will become a normal part of commercial shinkansen services.

    Among regular JR East train lines, E233 series local service trains on the Joban Line began automated operations between Ayase and Toride stations from March this year. Automated operations were also tested from December 2018 to January 2019 on the Yamanote loop line around central Tokyo.

    (Japanese original by Yosuke Tsuyuki, Niigata Bureau, and Shotaro Kinoshita, Tokyo City News Department)

    In Photos: Aboard an automated shinkansen bullet train test in Niigata

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