Driverless Shinkansen Japan bullet trains to launch by 2028

e7 series shinkansen

JR East has announced that it will introduce driverless Shinkansen in Japan by the mid-2030s. JR Tokai could launch self-driving bullet trains even earlier, by 2028.

As part of its Change 2027 program, JR East previously conducted a series of driverless Shinkansen test runs in late 2021, using a 12-car E7-series bullet train. JR East allocated an estimated budget of 200 million yen for the trials.

The 5-kilometer trial runs took place in October and November 2021 in Niigata Prefecture northwest of Tokyo.

They collected data to support JR East’s long-term plan to introduce driverless Shinkansen trains on its rail network, which now has an implementation date.

The E7-series Shinkansen

The 2021 tests were carried out using the E7-series trains. This model of Shinkansen has been in operation on Japan’s rail network since 2014.

E7 series trains are based on the earlier E2 Shinkansen series, and combine futuristic and traditional design elements to give a distinctly “Japanese” feel both inside and out. The external roof is painted in a sky-blue color, while the sides are ivory white with copper and sky-blue lining.

Although E7s do not reach the maximum Shinkansen speed of 275 per hour or the top Maglev train speed of 375 miles per hour, these trains still have a top speed of 260 km per hour.

Along with the standard and green cars present on Shinkansen, E7s also include one Gran Class Car for luxurious first-class travel. Gran Class cars offer travelers spacious seating and personalized attention by a host or hostess. They are fully equipped with the latest technology.

E7 series trains are currently operated by drivers in central and eastern Japan, but were remotely piloted for the trials. The aim is for the trains to reach Grade of Automation 3 (GoA3), meaning that the train can fully drive itself.

Which lines will use driverless Shinkansen?

The driverless Shinkansen tests have so far taken place on the northernmost section of the Joetsu Shinkansen Line, which is not used by commercial traffic. This 5km-long section runs from Niigata station to the stock depot at Higashi-Niigata.

The rail operator previously conducted similar tests on Tokyo’s Yamanote Line, as well as with the “Alfa-X” prototype Shinkansen train.

Now, JR East has confirmed that the automated trains will continue to run on the Joetsu Shinkansen line. They are considering implementing the trains on the Hokuriku line as well.

The company has also said they plan to trial fully unattended trains (GoA4) before they can enter commercial use.

JR East is eager to further roll out the automated Shinkansen as soon as possible to combat expected labor shortages, improve safety, and reduce human errors.

In April 2023, the company signed a deal with West Japan Railway to work together to further develop automated systems and reduce costs

How the driverless Shinkansen works

The driverless Shinkansen tests on the Joetsu Line evaluated 4 aspects of automatic train operation:

  • The ability of the trains to initiate automatically
  • Whether the ATO equipment enables the train to stop in a specific location
  • The ability of the wayside and onboard control equipment to automatically accelerate and decelerate the train
  • Whether the train could be brought to an emergency halt through remote means

The tests were considered a success, although at the time JR East official Yasuaki Suzuki said “We need to continue to work on how to make a smooth stop at a station. There is still room for improvement”.

The tests also assessed whether high-definition video can be transmitted on the trains using local 5G new-generation telecoms networks and potentially be used on the national rail network in the future.

JR Central also testing driverless Shinkansen for 2028

In addition to the driverless tests conducted by JR East, Central Japan Railway Co. (also known as JR Tokai) has also been conducting trials involving self-driving Shinkansen since November 2021.

The company, which operates the Tokaido Shinkansen line, announced a successful test of a driverless N700S train on May 11, 2023. The trial run took place between Hamamatsu Station and Shizuoka Station in Shizuoka Prefecture.

During the trial, the driver remained on standby to take control if necessary, but this was ultimately not required. The automatic train operating system (ATO) was able to fully navigate the track and arrive on time at its destination.

Following the latest successful trial, JR Tokai hopes to implement the trains on its services by 2028.

The role of drivers on future Shinkansen

While the introduction of driverless Shinkansen trains marks a significant technological advancement, it also raises questions about the role of drivers in the future.

During the initial stages of implementing driverless trains, drivers will still be present on board to handle any emergencies or situations requiring manual intervention. This ensures a smooth transition and maintains the highest level of safety for passengers.

In the long term, the role of drivers may evolve to focus more on customer service and assisting passengers, rather than operating the train.

This shift in responsibilities will allow drivers to continue contributing to the Shinkansen experience, while the automated systems handle the train’s operation.

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