After nearly being axed to cut government spending, a project is continuing--and struggling--to develop new trains that can run on both Shinkansen lines and the narrower tracks used by local trains.
The government-affiliated Japan Railway Construction, Transport and Technology Agency (JRTT) plans to introduce the Gauge Change Train (GCT), also called Free Gauge Train, to new bullet train lines for the Kyushu and the Hokuriku regions.
However, the GCT, which automatically changes the space between wheels depending on the track, has encountered several problems.
On April 20, a blue GCT underwent a durability test at the JR Yosan Line’s Sanukishioya Station in Marugame, Kagawa Prefecture. The sounds produced by the train were much smaller than those of conventional limited express trains. That’s because the GCT, whose front is shaped like a remora, ran at only 65 kph, said Jun Kato, a JRTT official in charge of GCT development.
The JRTT plans to operate the GCT on local lines at speeds of 130 kph. But with its heavy body, the stress from the train on the joints of rail tracks exceeds permissible standards if it runs at fast speeds.
“The shakes the GCT suffers at the joints are bigger than those of conventional local trains,” said the 34-year-old driver in the test.
A GCT car is more than 4 tons heavier than that of a conventional local train, which is about 40 tons.
The JRTT is trying to improve the rail tracks through welding. It plans to conduct a durability test at a speed of 130 kph in June at the earliest.
The heavy body of the GCT also makes it difficult to negotiate curves at high speeds. Therefore, the length of its cars has been reduced to 20 meters, or 5 meters shorter than that of a Shinkansen car.
The GCT undergoing the durability tests--a second-generation train--will run about 200 kilometers a day until the end of this fiscal year to check for abrasion on the wheels and other parts. If the rate of abrasion is high, the operating costs of GCT will increase.
After the test is completed, the JRTT will develop third-generation GCT vehicles for final tests.
It will also construct GCT rail lines, consisting of 1,435-millimeter-wide, broad-gauge tracks and 1,067-mm-wide, narrow-gauge ones, for running tests totaling 600,000 kilometers.
Currently, the GCT consists of three cars. In the final tests, more cars will be added to prepare for practical use.
The location of the final tests has yet to be decided. And new problems could arise, raising questions about whether the JRTT can put the GCT into practical use before the start of the Nagasaki Shinkansen Line scheduled in 2022.
“It will be in time (for the start). But we cannot say that we have sufficient leeway,” a JRTT official said.
Since 1994, more than 32 billion yen (about $400 million) has been spent for GCT development. After the Democratic Party of Japan took over the government in 2009, the new administration considered scrapping the GCT project to cut government expenditures.
However, senior officials of the transport ministry explained that if the entire railways of the Nagasaki Shinkansen Line from Hakata Station in Fukuoka to Nagasaki are newly constructed specifically for bullet trains, it would cost as much as 960 billion yen.
As a result, the GCT development project was spared.
DPJ lawmaker Yukio Edano, a key player in deciding which projects would be abolished, said at that time, “Even if we spend a lot of money for GCT development, the cost is much smaller than that for constructing new tracks (for the entire portions of the Nagasaki Shinkansen Line).”
Another problem is that the GCT runs at a slower speed compared with conventional Shinkansen bullet trains.
It will take about one hour and 20 minutes for the GCT to run the 143-km Nagasaki Shinkansen Line, one-third of which is a local line.
In comparison, the Kyushu Shinkansen Line, which opened in 2011, has a length of 257 km from Fukuoka to Kagoshima, or nearly double the distance on the Nagasaki Shinkansen Line. A bullet train can cover the length of the Kyushu Shinkansen Line in one hour and 17 minutes, three minutes faster that the GCT on the Nagasaki Shinkansen Line.
People living along the Nagasaki Shinkansen Line hope the GCT can also run on the Sanyo Shinkansen Line between Fukuoka and Osaka. However, West Japan Railway Co. (JR West), operator of the Sanyo Shinkansen Line, is negative to the idea.
On the Sanyo Shinkansen Line, bullet trains run at the maximum speed of 300 kph. The GCT’s fastest speed is 270 kph.
“If GCTs run on the Sanyo Shinkansen Line, they will affect the operations of Shinkansen trains,” then JR West President Takayuki Sasaki said in a news conference in April.
(This article was compiled from reports by Kenichi Ezaki, Kiyohide Inada and Kazunori Haga.)
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