Faster and more energy efficient trains are changing how we live and commute
Koji Agatsuma has seen transformations in transport happen time and time again in his work at Hitachi Rail, where he’s now global COO for rolling stock. Hitachi built the world’s first high-speed trains in Japan in 1964, with the ground-breaking “0 Series”, now considered an icon of engineering and design.
“Introducing Shinkansen trains helped grow the economy and improve people’s quality of life,” he says. “Many stations were at first surrounded by low density development. But after bullet trains were introduced, people started building homes and businesses started to open and develop around those stations. This has allowed the benefits of economic growth previously centred on Tokyo to be shared with regional towns and cities”. It’s clear that the development of the Shinkansen has been one of the most important factors of Japan’s economic growth.”
There are now nine Shinkansen lines running from Kagoshima in the south to Hakodate in the north, with multiple extensions underway, including the construction of the world’s longest undersea tunnel, which will enable bullet trains to reach Hokkaido’s capital, Sapporo.
Hitachi doesn’t just build trains, it also provides control systems, power supplies and digital systems worldwide. The company is particularly proud of its role developing and running the MARS seat reservation system for the Japanese National Railways (today, Japan Railways); the booking system, still in use today, has never gone down.
In Italy, the 2015 introduction of the ETR 1000 – better known as the Frecciarossa 1000, or “Red Arrow” – has reduced the distances allowing a reduction of travel times, thanks in part to its top operational speeds of 300kph, though it has the potential to run as fast as 360kph. Its remarkable acceleration and stability comes courtesy of 16 under-floor electric motors distributed along the length of the train, while its state-of-the-art aerodynamic and lightweight design slashes operating energy use by a quarter versus previous models. “This is a very important mode of transport for Italy – it is comfortable, reliable and quiet, as well as speedy,” Agatsuma says.
The success of the train is evidenced by the ongoing construction by Hitachi of further trains that will expand services in Italy and allow the launch of new high speed services in Europe.
The development of Italy’s extensive high-speed network has allowed Italians to commute from further afield, keeping their roots in their home towns while working in urban centres. Office rents and property values have increased in towns along the new high speed train lines, such as Rogoredo and Porta Garibaldi. The high-speed trains are also popular among tourists. While overall tourism to Italy rose ten per cent between 2008 and 2018, the number of foreign passengers taking high-speed trains increased by 19% compared to 2017. The arrival of the high-speed trains in Italy has been assessed by Trenitalia to have boosted the economy by +0.15 per cent of GDP, helping to create 500,000 jobs.
Boosting the economy aside, high-speed trains also helped shift people away from using air travel. Pre-Covid, seven in ten travellers between Milan and Rome took the train, with air travel falling from 25 per cent to 19 per cent, and car travel sliding from 11 per cent to nine per cent. Across the country, such modal shifts have contributed to saving two million tonnes in carbon emissions annually according to the European Environment Agency. That’s just for passenger traffic – the first high-speed freight in the world began in Italy in 2018 with Mercitalia (Italian State Railways Group) connecting Maddaloni-Marcianise with Bologna Interporto with two trips per night, removing 9,000 trucks a year from the A1 motorway and slashing carbon emissions by 80 per cent.
In short, beyond a faster, more comfortable train journey, high-speed rail has helped reshape where Italians live and work, how tourists holiday and explore the country, and boosted the economy. “This is exactly the same concept that was achieved in Japan,” says Agatsuma.
The Frecciarossa 1000 or “Red Arrow” saves passengers on average 30 minutes per journey
That’s the scale of impact promised by proposals for a wider high-speed network in the UK. At the moment, high-speed trains link London to Kent and the Continent via the Channel Tunnel using the High Speed 1 line, and construction is underway on a new line that will connect London to Birmingham’s city centre in just 45 minutes.
In the future, a network of UK high-speed lines could radically change travel patterns for work, education and leisure, and help regenerate towns and cities in the Midlands and North. Such a network could help shrink Britain into a country that is easy to travel around, without the need to opt for air travel or hopping in a car.
“I think Britain can be completely transformed by high speed rail,” Agatsuma says. “And by taking the fastest, long distance trains off conventional lines this also frees up considerable capacity for more freight, local and regional passenger services”
But that’s in the future. Hitachi Rail was instrumental in the start of the UK’s high-speed journey back in 2005, when it signed a contract to deliver 29 Class 395 “Javelin” trains for HS1. The success of these trains and their popularity amongst passengers in the South East paved the way for the win of a huge contract for a new generation of trains as part of the Intercity Express Programme, the largest UK rolling stock project ever seen. And in 2017, a new Hitachi factory opened in County Durham to bring train building back to its original home in the north east of England, where Stephenson’s Rocket was built almost 200 years ago.
In 2019, some of those trains began operation with London North Eastern Railway (LNER) on the Iconic East Coast Main Line, running from London to Scotland. They launched under the name Azuma, which means “East” in Japanese. These modern intercity trains can reach speeds of 200kph in four minutes and 40 seconds, a full minute faster than previous models, helping to cut travel times. Using innovative bi-mode electric and diesel power, they replaced dozens of ageing diesel trains and have massively reduced harmful particulate emissions, to the benefit of passengers, station staff and people living close to the line. And with an extra 12,200 seats across the 65 trains, travellers are benefiting from increased availability, as well as more space for luggage and bikes.
Of course, there’s more to such projects than simply making trains go faster – we need to build better trains, too. For example, generally the faster a train goes, the more noise it makes – especially problematic for Japan, where the Shinkansen bullet trains regularly pass through residential neighbourhoods at remarkable speed. By considering aerodynamics in the design, as well as developing advanced low-noise pantographs – the machinery that connects trains to overhead electric wires – the noise levels have been significantly reduced, Agatsuma says.”Aerodynamical design is very important to minimise noise and energy consumption,” he says. “Because of our unique history and experience in Japan, we have special know-how on how to reduce external noise levels.”
Another way good design can bring benefits for everyone is in creating lighter trains which require less energy to power them. “Because of the reduced environmental impact, lightweight trains are the future – and they place less stress on the network and so can save both time and money when it comes to maintenance,” Agatsuma says.
The Shinkansen 0 train helped grow the economy and improve people’s quality of life
Accessibility is another key issue. In Japan, stations were built with level access, meaning people with reduced mobility didn’t need to step up or down to access a carriage. That’s not the case across much of Europe, including in the UK, although the plans for new high speed stations are set to include such level boarding. In developing future train designs, Hitachi designers and researchers will make use of a range of innovative tools, developed with the multi industry experts from the University of Cambridge, which enable engineers to experience what it is like to be older, less physically able, or visually impaired.
“Inclusive design is very important – but it’s not just about making trains and stations more accessible for those with disabilities, it actually leads to better design, which benefits everyone,” Agatsuma says.
This highlights the importance of the travel experience and maximising quality of life when it comes to train design. The purpose of high-speed trains is that they benefit people – they are a prime example of a technology designed for public good.
The shift to home working and digital communications experienced since the pandemic doesn’t change that, Agatsuma argues. Ten years ago, the rise of email and video conferencing raised the spectre of less business travel in Japan – but the contrary has happened. “Public transport has increased in Japan,” he says. “We trust people we meet face to face. Whatever technology is developed, meeting in person is the basis of human activity. And as working patterns shift, we may actually have more time to enjoy travelling – and in my opinion the best way to do that is by train.” Making that happen faster and better is at the heart of Hitachi’s high-speed rail strategy and exemplifies their mission statement: connecting the future of mobility.
Modern life is saturated with data, and technologies are emerging nearly every day – but how can we use these innovations to make a real difference to the world? Hitachi believes that social innovation should underpin everything it does, so it can find ways to tackle the biggest issues we face today. Visit Social-Innovation.Hitachi to learn how Hitachi Social Innovation is Powering Good and helping drive change across the globe.
–Modern life is saturated with data, and technologies are emerging nearly every day – but how can we use these innovations to make a real difference to the world? Hitachi believes that social innovation should underpin everything it does, so it can find ways to tackle the biggest issues we face today. Visit Social-Innovation.Hitachi to learn how Hitachi Social Innovation is Powering Good and helping drive change across the globe.