WITH a population of 464,461, Kanazawa doesn't even make it into the top 30 largest-cities in Japan, but the city's beautifully-preserved historic core, which has largely escaped the ravages of industrialisation, conflict, and earthquakes, is a magnet for tourists attracting more than 8 million visitors a year. The opening of the Hokuriku Shinkansen on March 14 will bring Kanazawa within two-and-a-half hours of Tokyo, putting the line's operators JR East and JR West in prime position to capture a sizable chunk of the lucrative tourist market on this route.

The 228km line is a continuation of the 117km Nagano Shinkansen, which opened in 1997, and serves six intermediate stations including Joestsumyoko, Iiyama and Toyama. The line was built by Japan Railway Construction, Transport and Technology Agency (JRTT) and major engineering features include the 22.2km Iiyama Tunnel, which was holed through in 2007.

Trial operation began in December 2013 on the Nagano - Kurobe-Unazukionsen section and by August 2014 test runs were taking place along the entire line to Kanazawa.

hokurikuThe total cost of construction was Yen 1.8 trillion ($US 15.4bn), with two thirds of the budget coming from the Japanese government and the remainder from prefectures served by the new line. JR East and JR West will pay a usage fee to JRTT for access to the infrastructure for 30 years from the start of operations and this charge will be fixed at a level that does not exceed operating revenue and expenses.

From next month Tokyo and Kanazawa will be linked by 24 trains per direction per day, with the service pattern comprising 10 express Kagayaki services and 14 semi-fast Hakutaka trains. Kagayaki services will complete the 345.4km trip in 2h 28min. This compares with 3h 47min via the present route which involves taking a Joetsu Shinkansen train from Tokyo to Echigo-Yuzawa and connecting with a 1067mm-gauge train on the Hokuetsu Kyuko line, which has a maximum speed of 160km/h.

There will also be 18 Tsurugi shuttles per direction per day serving all stations between Toyama and Kanazawa, 16 Asama Tokyo - Nagano services, and one train from Nagano to Kanazawa. Like Kanazawa, Toyama will benefit from a significant improvement in journey times to Tokyo, with the 3h 11min trip being cut by more than an hour to 2h 8min.

Currently around 2.9 million people per year travel between Tokyo and Kanazawa by air or rail, with the airlines holding a 64% share of the air-rail market, but in an area where tourism is an important business JR West sees significant potential to grow the overall travel market. "The government of Ishikawa prefecture wants to double the number of passengers travelling to the area by rail and air and the governor says his main concern is that we focus on bringing in more people, rather than competing with the airlines," explains Mr Nobuaki Sugimoto, public relations manager for JR West. "The key objective is attracting more visitors to the region."

In the run-up to the opening of the line, the three JR Group railways are running a promotional campaign highlighting the attractions of Hokuriku and cities served by the Shinkansen. "We want to ensure people from Tokyo and central Japan are using the line as soon as it opens," says Sugimoto.

All services on the new line will be operated by the new fleet of 27 series 7 Shinkansen trains procured jointly by JR East and JR West, with the exception of some Tokyo - Nagano services, which will be worked by eight-car series E8 sets. Each 12-car series 7 set will seat 934 passengers, including 853 in standard class, 63 in Green Car and 18 in GranClass. The single GranClass vehicle is equipped with full-active suspension to reduce vibration in the car body and all vehicles are fully accessible for passengers with reduced mobility, with braile signage, power sockets at every seat, and CCTV throughout the train.

The trains have a maximum speed of 260km/h and are designed to operate on the 25kV ac electrification system at both 50Hz and 60Hz due to the variation in the commercial frequency on the Japanese network. The trains will switch between frequencies without stopping three times on the section of the route between Tokyo and Unaduki.

Hokuriku experiences frequent snowfall in the winter months and the series 7 has been developed specifically for operation at low temperatures. The car body has been designed to minimise the build-up of snow and the front air dam on the driving cars acts as a snow plough to prevent underfloor snow and ice accumulation which can damage components.

The 10 JR West series W7 and 17 JR East series E7 sets will be maintained at a purpose-built depot at Hakusan, 10km west of Kanazawa.

With the completion of the line to Kanazawa, attention now turns to the continuation of the Hokuriku Shinkansen west to Fukui and Tsuruga. Construction began on the 120.7km extension in 2012 with an official completion date of 2025, but following December's general election it now looks likely that Shinkansen services could begin running west of Kanazawa much sooner.

In the run-up to the general election on December 14 the Liberal Democratic Party, which now holds a majority in the House of Representatives in coalition with the Komeito party, had campaigned to accelerate the expansion of the Shinkansen network with the aim of spreading the benefits of economic recovery to all regions of Japan. According to reports in the Japanese press, the government and the ruling coalition agreed at a meeting on January 8 to bring forward the completion date for the Kanazawa - Tsuruga section from 2025 to 2022, and a decision will be made this summer on whether to open the Kanazawa - Fukui section as early as 2020.

In addition, the 211km second phase of the Hokkaido Shinkansen from Shin-Hakodate to Sapporo is now due to open in 2030, five years earlier than previously scheduled, and the extension of Kyushu Shinkansen to Nagasaki will also be brought forward, although no dates have been given for this project.

Various route options are being considered for a further extension of the Hokuriku Shinkansen to Osaka, where the line would meet the Tokaido Shinkansen from Tokyo, although this is viewed very much as a long-term project. "There are many ideas, but it has not yet been decided which route to take," Sugimoto says. "The extension of the Hokkaido Shinkansen to Sapporo is considered by the government to be more of a priority."

Nonetheless, JR West says it is planning to use variable-gauge trains on the Tsuruga extension to enable the operation of through services from Kanazawa to Osaka, which would switch from the 1435mm-gauge Shinkansen line to the 1067mm-gauge network at Tsuruga.

Last November JR West began trials with a purpose-built 180m-long gauge-changer at Tsuruga and the company is planning to design and build a prototype Free Gauge Train (FGT), which will be capable of operating under both the 25kV ac electrification used on the Shinkansen and the 1.5kV dc system employed on conventional lines. The six-car train is due to start trials on the Hokuriku Shinkansen and the 1067mm-gauge Hokuriku and Kosei lines in 2017. JR West says it is working in partnership with Talgo on the development of this technology.

"There are a number of points we need to consider with the operation of FGT on the Hokuriku Shinkansen," says Sugimoto. "These include the impact of snow and ice accumulation on the performance of the gauge-changing equipment, the need to operate under two electrification systems, and earthquake resistance, because it would be difficult to fit the anti-derailment device from the W7 to variable-gauge bogies. But we need FGT because passengers need up to 30 minutes to change from Shinkansen services to local trains."

JR West is not the only Japanese railway evaluating the use of FGTs to bridge the gap between the conventional and standard-gauge networks. Last October JR Kyushu and JRTT launched trials with their prototype series 9000 train on the Kyushu Shinkansen and the 1067mm-gauge Kagoshima Line. The train is capable of operating at up to 260km/h on the Shinkansen and 130km/h on the conventional network. JR Kyushu plans to use variable-gauge trains from 2022 on the Hakata - Nagasaki Shinkansen, which will initially be isolated from the rest of the high-speed network.

While there may be some way to go before the operation of FGTs on the Shinkansen can be considered commercially viable, the focus on developing the technology suggests Japan's railways see the potential to extend the benefits of new Shinkansen lines to towns and cities on the conventional network.