Japan's Record-Breaking Commuter Train

For Japan's new 250mph commuter train, slowing down is every bit as important as speeding up

by Courtesy East Japan Railway Company

Courtesy East Japan Railway Company

At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, no sprinter could compete for attention, let alone swiftness, with the newly opened Shinkansen, or "bullet train," which ran between Tokyo and Osaka at 125 miles an hour. A worldwide race to increase train speeds has been on ever since. France´s record-setting TGV operates at a top speed of 218 mph, but with the Fastech 360, East Japan Railway stands to become to railroads what Jesse Owens was to footraces. The company´s brand-new eight-car prototype, demonstrated for the first time this summer between Sendai and Kitakami, can reach speeds of up to 250 mph and will likely zip passengers between Tokyo and Aomori at 223 mph on a daily basis.

The improved performance depends primarily on sleeker aerodynamics and a more efficient connection to overhead power lines. But the viability of running a train at speeds faster than the average propeller plane also has much to do with innovations in safety and comfort. Most prominent of these are the peaked spoilers, which rotate out of the roof of each car and quickly slow down the train in case of a calamity. Subtler safety features include heaters to prevent snow buildup under the carriage. And for a less jarring ride, cars will tilt inward as the train turns corners, to decrease the effect of centripetal force.

All of which will take time to develop, according to spokesman Shuji Kubota, who notes that, on such a novel design, even "the development of maintenance methods is a major challenge." In other words, this fast train will be slow out of the starting gate-service starting in 2011 is the latest estimate.

ALL ABOARD THE FASTEST TRAIN YET

A. SPOILERS

In the event of an earthquake or similar emergency, two spoilers slide from the roof of each car, slowing the train by air resistance. The first-of-a-kind components are automatically deployed using compressed air and, combined with conventional brakes, allow the train to stop quickly, the way slower trains do.

B. PASSENGER CAR

Each car is fitted with active suspension. Electromagnets absorb vibration, and air pressure inclines the entire car by up to two degrees on curves, cushioning passengers against centripetal force.

C. AERODYNAMIC NOSE

Engineers used computer simulations to develop two different prototype nose cones, one sharply pointed and the other gently curved [shown]. Each cone is optimized to reduce air drag at high speeds, as well as to decrease noisy micropressure waves inside tunnels. At 52 feet, the cones are the longest in the world. Further testing will determine which design works best.

LOCOMOTION

Current bullet-train cars require two pantographs, long rods that draw power from an overhead electrical source. One is positioned at the front of a car, and the other attaches to the back. Each car on the Fastech will rely on one low-weight, noise-insulated pantograph, which is designed to collect current more efficiently.