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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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New Bullet Train for New Frontier

Mar. 24, 2016

The Hokkaido Shinkansen bullet train will begin service on Saturday. Hopes are high that the new route will boost local businesses and tourism, but several issues remain.

The new rail line will provide a fast way to travel from Tokyo to Japan's main northern island, which is known for its pristine nature, and fresh seafood and dairy products.

Hokkaido is one of the country's most popular tourist spots, attracting about 1.5 million visitors from abroad every year.

As the launch of the Hokkaido Shinkansen bullet train approaches, lucky lottery winners were invited to join a test run. They enjoyed viewing the scenery from the windows, and had a relaxing ride.

"It was even more comfortable than I had expected. It goes without saying safety must come first," said one male passenger on the test run.

The Hokkaido bullet train is Japan's 9th high-speed railway line. It will connect Japan's main island, Honshu, to Hokkaido through the world's longest undersea tunnel.

The 150-kilometer line will make it possible to travel from Tokyo to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto in as little as 4 hours and 2 minutes. From there, travelers can take connecting trains to Hakodate -- one of Hokkaido's most popular tourist spots.

The line is scheduled to be extended to the island's biggest city, Sapporo in 2031.

The latest bullet-train type, the H5 series, will operate along the line. The car bodies are painted in 3 colors: green on the top, white on the bottom, and a purple line running along the center. They represent the flowers of Hokkaido: lilacs, lupines and lavenders.

The interior of the regular train cars features wood paneling on the walls and ceilings. The carpet covering the aisle has a snowflake motif.

In GranClass, the highest-grade carriage, the pattern on the blue carpet represents the shimmering surfaces of the ocean and lakes along the bullet-train route.

The car is equipped with fully-adjustable reading lights and other conveniences to maximize passenger comfort. And there are 2 large restrooms that accommodate electric wheelchairs. They're open to all passengers.

The Hokkaido Shinkansen is an improved version of the bullet trains currently running in other parts of Japan. It has various adjustments designed to keep it resistant to harsh winter weather.

The metal plate under the train floor is made of stainless steel, instead of the usual aluminum, to improve durability. A snow plow on the front of the train will also help deal with the heavy snow. And the couplers have been covered with rubber to prevent snow from accumulating.

Various modifications have also been applied to the tracks. On elevated sections, wire mesh is installed along both sides of the track to allow snow to fall through. This is only applied in non-residential areas, because the snow makes noise as it falls.

Air blowers are installed at track-points. Lumps of ice falling from the train's undercarriage hinder point-switching, so the device immediately blows it away. Every time a train passes, the device is activated to blow off any ice and snow.

Ryo Takagi, an associate professor from Kogakuin University joined anchors Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Shibuya: So what is the significance of the new Hokkaido Shinkansen?

Takagi: Well it's been just over 50 years since the opening of the first Shinkansen, and we now have a network of high-speed railway from the southernmost part of Japan, which is Kyushu, all the way to the northernmost part of Japan, which is Hokkaido. The local people in Hokkaido will be very excited about it because the Shinkansen is expected to boost local industry and tourism.

The fastest journey time from Tokyo to Hokkaido will be 4 hours and 2 minutes. But when the journey time exceeds 4 hours on rail, Japanese tend to prefer travel by air. The determining factor is the undersea Seikan Tunnel. The Hokkaido bullet train must run through the tunnel, and share it with much slower freight trains.

The northern tip of Japan's main island is a place called Cape Tappi. Beyond it is the Tsugaru Strait, which stands between Japan's main island and the northern island of Hokkaido. The 54-kilometer-long Seikan Tunnel exists underneath the sea. It's the world's longest undersea tunnel. It took 24 years to build, and opened in 1988.

The tunnel is vital for freight traffic to and from Hokkaido, with 51 freight trains passing through it every day. The tunnel will have to be shared by the Shinkansen and the conventional freight trains. This was made possible by installing a third rail to create a dual-gauge track, allowing the Shinkansen and freight trains to run on the same line.

But this causes problems. Freight trains run at a much slower speed, so Shinkansen trains can catch up with them. And when the two trains pass each other in the tunnel, the air pressure caused by the Shinkansen's high speed could derail a freight train or damage its load.

For that reason, the Shinkansen must run at a slower speed -- and that means the 4-hour barrier can't be resolved.

To solve these problems, the Hokkaido Railway Company and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport are looking into possible solutions.

One possibility is to have the Shinkansen decelerate only when passing a freight train. To do that, an early warning system would need to be developed to make the Shinkansen stop on time. Also, an improved "digital ATC system" will be necessary to control the deceleration.

Other options include constructing a partition between the inbound and outbound tracks, or even building a second Seikan Tunnel. However, all proposals require huge budgets and technical innovations. None of them offer a decisive, concrete solution.

Beppu: So among these options, which one do you think is the most realistic?

Takagi: I think the solution that is most likely to be adopted will be to introduce improvements to the ATC system, so that the trains can pass each other in a safe way. That, I think, is the cheapest solution.

Shibuya: So now what is the next step for this new Shinkansen?

Takagi: Well, this section of the Hokkaido Shinkansen that will open this Saturday is just the first step. We have a plan to open the second section, which is from Hakodate to Sapporo, and that link will cut travel times from the current 3 hours on the conventional express train, to just over one hour. And that will have a much larger impact on the local economy.