ALL three of Japan's major islands will be linked by high-speed rail when the latest addition to Japan's high-speed network, the 149km Hokkaido Shinkansen, begins revenue service on March 26.


The new standard-gauge line runs from Shin-Aomori on Honshu to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto on Hokkaido via the 53.8km Seikan tunnel, which was the world's longest when it opened in 1988.

Until now the tunnel has only been used by conventional 1067mm-gauge trains. These services, which include overnight sleeper trains, will cease to operate when the Hokkaido Shinkansen opens. However, with 1067mm-gauge freight services important for industries on Honshu and Hokkaido they will continue to operate using an 82km dual-gauge section of the line between Shin-Naka-Oguni and Kikonai, including the entire Seikan tunnel section.

Series H5Japan Railway Construction, Transport and Technology Agency (JRTT) is responsible for construction of the new line, which runs 23% on viaducts, 4% on bridges, and 65% in tunnels. In addition to the Seikan tunnel the line uses the 8.1km Oshima - Tobetsu, 6.2km Tsugaru - Oda, and 5.9km Tsugaru tunnels. The maximum line speed is 260km/h with trains operating at up to 140km/h in tunnels. Up to 51 freight trains a day will use the line at up to 110km/h with JR Freight developing the EH800 dual-voltage locomotive, which is capable of operating at 20kV ac on the conventional network and 25kV ac on the new section, for these revamped services. The twin-unit Bo-Bo+Bo-Bo locomotive has an output of 4MW at 25kV and 3.04MW at 20kV.

The Hokkaido Shinkansen project cost Yen 550.8bn ($US 4.67bn), with the Japanese government contributing two-thirds of this cost and the remainder coming from local government minus infrastructure access charges paid by JR Hokkaido, the operator of the new line, which will also provide maintenance services, including in the Seikan tunnel. JR Freight will similarly pay infrastructure charges to JRTT, JR Hokkaido and other railways.

JR Hokkaido will operate four series H5 trains built by Hitachi and Kawasaki Heavy Industries on the line and will offer a through service onto the Tohoku Shinkansen. The trains are built to the same specification as JR East's 28 series E5 Shinkansen trains which it operates on the Tohoku and will be maintained at Hakodate depot, near Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto. The 10-car 320km/h sets are 253m-long and can accommodate up to 731 seated passengers, including 18 in grand class and 55 in green cars.

The trains weigh 453 tonnes, have an output of 9.6MW, and will operate 13 services per day, with 10 express Hayabusa trains running between Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto and Tokyo, as well as a single Hayabusa service to Sendai, and two Hayate services, one to Morioka, and another to Shin-Aomori.

The fastest Hayabusa journey time on the 823km journey to and from Tokyo will be 4h 10min, with a Yen 22,690 fare available for a standard class journey. However, this compares poorly with the minimum Yen 17,000 fare for a 1h 20min flight between the two cities.

Freight services from the interior of Hokkaido will change from diesel to electric traction at Goryokaku, 3.4km north of Hakodate station. In Honshu, trains will switch to an electric locomotive for Seikan at Aomori Junction, 1.9km south of Aomori station.

In addition to the new standard-gauge line, work is underway to upgrade 1067mm-gauge lines on Hokkaido to improve access to the high-speed service. Hakodate, with population of about 270,000, is 18km from the closest station on the Hokkaido Shinkansen, the terminus at Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto. Access is provided via the Hakodate branch line between Goryokaku and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto and work is underway to electrify this line at 20kV 50Hz with 16 daily shuttle trains consisting of three-car EMUs set to offer a journey time of 17 minutes.

The new station provides straightforward transfers from high-speed trains to the shuttles as well as revitalised intercity Hokuto and Super Hokuto services to Sapporo which will be stepped up from nine to 12 trains per day. Indeed, following the start of the Hokkaido Shinkansen service, operation of services on the Esashi and Hakodate-Kikonai branch lines, 41.2km of the Tsugaru line on Hokkaido, and 55.8km of the Aomori-Minmaya line on Honshu will transfer from JR to third-party railways.

Heavy snowfall and temperatures as low as -20oC during the winter months, led JR Hokkaido to carry out tests during two winters ahead of the start of operations to confirm the line's performance as well as the durability of the trains and infrastructure. Using elevated sections reduces the risks of snow cleared by trains fitted with a snowplough from disrupting services by allowing the storage of accumulated snow in designated areas on the viaduct as well as enabling snow to drop through gaps in the deck to the ground below. In addition dual-gauge turnouts are protected using a "snow shed" while other turnouts are equipped with a snow melting system using an air jet which also clears snow or ice that has fallen from trains.

Earthquakes are also common in the region and the detection system installed on the new line cuts the traction power to immediately stop any operating trains. Trains then deploy an anti-derailment guard developed following the Chuetsu earthquake in 2004. In addition there are two emergency stations - Tappi and Yoshioka - in the Seikan tunnel which enable the evacuation of passengers to the surface.

The next phase of the Hokkaido Shinkansen project is the 211km section from Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto to Sapporo, Hokkaido's largest city with 1.9 million inhabitants. Construction of the line began in June 2012 and is expected to be completed in March 2031.

The long construction period, and the project's Yen 1.67 trillion cost, are explained by the fact that 76% of the line will run in tunnels. These include the Toshima (26.5km), Teteiwa (17km), Uchiura (15.6km), Konbu (10.4km), Futatsumori (12.7km), Atoshi (18km), and Teine (18.8km) tunnels.

Once completed, journey times between Tokyo and Sapporo could fall to 3h 57min. However, this is dependent on the result of future negotiations between JR East, JR Hokkaido and JR Freight over the extent of 360km/h operation between Utsunomiya and Sapporo, excluding the Seikan tunnel section. A further 136km extension between Sapporo and Asahigawa in central Hokkaido is also planned but has yet to reach the approval phase.