Japan's shinkansen bullet trains gearing up for automatic driving

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Japan's shinkansen bullet trains gearing up for automatic driving

Japan's shinkansen bullet trains gearing up for automatic driving

Japanese railway companies, Central Japan Railway Co. and East Japan Railway Co. are making strides toward the commercialization of driverless systems for their respective Shinkansen lines. The aim is to implement these autonomous technologies by around 2028 for the Tokaido Shinkansen and the mid-2030s for the Joetsu Shinkansen.

As testing progresses, the distinct objectives of the two JR companies have become apparent, reflecting the nature of the routes and the level of cost reduction being targeted.

In a successful trial on May 11, an automatic train operating system (ATO)-equipped test train departed from Hamamatsu Station in Shizuoka Prefecture, central Japan, along the Tokaido Shinkansen Line. The train, guided by the ATO, smoothly accelerated, decelerated, responded to instructions, and made a precise stop at Shizuoka Station. The trial showcased an impressive 9-millimeter (0.35-inch) deviation in the stop position and a minor 2-second arrival time error.

JR Central officials hailed the test as a "major success." For JR Central, key challenges in developing their ATO system include adhering to standardized departure, transit, and arrival times set in 15-second intervals at each station. They also aim to enhance passenger comfort and optimize energy-saving operations by fine-tuning acceleration/deceleration cycles and speed fluctuations.

The semi-automatic system incorporates an advanced feature that allows the train to travel at higher speeds until reaching a designated slowdown section. This compensates for delays caused by adverse weather or other circumstances.

JR Central is targeting Grade 2 automation, as recognized by international organizations, which mandates an operator to always be present in the driver's seat. Grade 2 automatic train operation has already been implemented by the Tokyo Metro subway system and other railway companies.

Currently, there are no plans to pursue a higher automation grade. Grade 4 represents the highest level of automation, where a train is operated without any staff onboard. The Yurikamome line in Tokyo is an example of Grade 4 automation, running without onboard staff.

"Our aim is to have a driver who can communicate with the command center and respond to emergencies," explained a JR Central official.

On the other hand, JR East is focused on introducing Grade 3 automation for the Joetsu Shinkansen, enabling operation by train attendants who do not require driver qualifications. However, a crew member will still be present onboard to handle operations.

JR East also plans to extend this system to the Hokuriku Shinkansen, which runs along the Sea of Japan side of central Japan.

"This will reduce driver training costs. Grade 2 requires the operator to be in the driver's seat at all times, even during automatic driving, which poses more challenging working conditions," stated a JR East official. The company has been conducting tests since October 2021.

Ryo Takagi, a professor of railroad engineering at Kogakuin University in Tokyo, notes that "Grades 2 and 3 do not differ significantly in terms of ATO performance."

However, Takagi speculates that JR Central may not see a significant need to reduce the number of drivers due to the high passenger volume on the Tokaido Shinkansen Line. Quick response times during abnormalities or disruptions in the timetable may necessitate their presence.

Regarding automation, he emphasized the importance of introducing it as a technology to alleviate work-related stress rather than utilizing train attendants as low-cost labor.

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