THE 600km Hokuriku Shinkansen will eventually provide a second high-speed rail corridor between Tokyo and Osaka via the north coast of Honshu. The first 117km section from Takasaki on the Tokyo - Niigata Joetsu Shinkansen to Nagano opened as the Nagano Shinkansen in October 1997 in time for the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano. Construction of the 228km Nagano - Kanazawa extension is well advanced and will open in March 2015.

Work started in 2012 on a 120.7km extension from Kanazawa to Fukui and Tsuruga with completion scheduled for 2025. Three options are being studied for the final section to connect the Hokuriku line with the Tokyo - Osaka Tokaido Shinkensen.

The Nagano - Kanazawa section has five tunnels the longest being the 2.2km Iiyama tunnel, and a number of major bridges spanning rivers. There are six intermediate stations including Joetsu, Itoigawa and Toyama.

The Hokuriku line is electrified at 25kV ac but it crosses the boundary between Japan's two national frequencies of 50Hz and 60Hz three times. The southern section from Tokyo via Takasaki to Karuizawa is electrified at 50Hz, the section from there via Nagano to Itoigawa on the north coast at 60Hz where it reverts to 50Hz. The new series 7 trains are designed to switch between frequencies without stopping at each boundary.

The Hokuriku line will be operated jointly by JR East and JR West, with JR East responsible for the operation and maintenance of the southern section as far as Joetsu, where JR West takes over.

E7d-Driving-cabThe two railways have jointly procured a fleet of 27 trains for operation between Tokyo and Kanazawa which will be known as series E7 by JR East and series W7 by JR West. The first train was presented to the public at Sendai depot on November 28 2013, and the trains will enter service this year between Tokyo and Nagano prior to the completion of the Nagano - Kanazawa section next year.

Each 12-car train consists of 10 motor cars and two driving trailers. There is one grand-class car with just 18 seats in one of the driving cars, with a green or first class car with 63 seats next to it. The remaining 10 second-class cars seat 853 passengers. This gives a total capacity of 934. The 25m-long cars are 3.4m wide which is the same as for other Shinkansen trains.

The series 7 trains will have a maximum operating speed of 260km/h. Each traction motor will have an output of 300kW which is the same as on series E5 trains. The pantographs installed on cars 3 and 7 are connected by high-voltage cables mounted on the roof.

Auxiliary three-phase power of 440V 60Hz is supplied by inverters, in contrast with series E5 and E6 which use single-phase 400V 50Hz fed by the third winding of main transformer. This power supply system is the same as that on the series E2 trains already in service on the Nagano Shinkansen.

To improve ride comfort, a full active suspension system will be provided in grand class, with a semi-active suspension system in the other cars. Anti-derailment devices are fitted to compensate for seismic forces following the experience with the Chuetsu earthquake in October 2004.

The series 7 fleet will be maintained at Hakusan depot which is located 10km to the west of Kanazawa. The existing series E2 trains are likely to be retained to operate Tokyo - Nagano Asama services, while the series 7 trains will be used to provide three types of service:

• Tokyo - Kanazawa limited-stop Kagayaki services

• Tokyo - Kanazawa all-stations Hakutaka services, and

• a Toyama - Kanazawa shuttle under the name Tsurugi.

The journey time between Tokyo and Kanazawa will be cut to 2 hours 30 minutes from 3 hours 47 minutes via the present route which entails 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.

A 1km-long viaduct at Fukui was completed in late 2008 for the future extension of the Hokuriku line from Kanazawa to Tsuruga four years in advance of work starting on the rest of line.

One of the three options for the final section of the Hokuriku line would entail constructing a direct Shinkansen link via Obama and Kameoka to Osaka known as the Wakasa route. While this is the shortest route to Osaka, it is also the most expensive with the cost estimated at Yen 1 trillion ($US 9.8bn), and it would not serve Kyoto.

Another option is for a direct Shinkansen line to Maibara on the Tokaido line, which would be only a third of the length of the Wakasa route, and would provide good access to both Kyoto and Nagoya. The drawback is that it would result in a longer journey time to Osaka and trains would have to use the existing Tokaido line tracks between Maibara and Shin-Osaka which are already operating at near-capacity.

The third option envisages upgrading the 1067mm-gauge Kosei line to Kyoto either by converting it to standard gauge or to dual-gauge as a so-called mini-Shinkansen, or possibly using gauge-changeable trains. This is the least-costly option, but trains would be limited to 160km/h and so journey times would be longer.

Gauge-changeable trains are also under consideration for use on the 117km West Kyushu Shinkansen, where only the 45km central section from Takeo-onsen to Isahaya is under construction with completion planned for 2023. The line will eventually run from Shin-Tosu, south of Hakata on the Kyushu Shinansen, via Takeo-onsen and Isahaya to Nagasaki.

Hokkaido Shinkansen

The only other Shinkansen currently under construction is the first stage of the Hokkaido line in the north of Japan. Work on the southern 149km section from Shin-Aomori to Shin-Hakodate started in April 2005 and is due to be completed by March 2016. The new line will incorporate the 53.9km Seikan tunnel linking Honshu with Hokkaido which opened in 1988. The tunnel is currently used by 1067mm-gauge trains but it was designed for eventual use by standard-gauge Shinkansen trains as well. This will require the laying of a third rail on each track and some minor modifications.

Although the Seikan tunnel was designed with a view to operating standard-gauge trains at up to 260km/h, most Shinkansen trains will be restricted to 140km/h as the tunnel is used by several freight trains a day and it is feared that shockwaves from Shinkansen trains travelling at high speed could affect the stability of 1067mm-gauge freight trains. However, it might be possible to find some 260km/h paths or introduce a system which would automatically reduce the speed of Shinkansen trains if a freight train is running in the opposite direction.

Approval was granted in 2012 for construction of a 211km extension to the Hokkaido Shinkansen north from Shin-Hakodate to Sapporo for completion in 2035. Work on the 5.3km Murayama tunnel north of Shin-Hakodate is expected to start next year.

A five-hour journey time from Tokyo to Sapporo will be feasible provided JR East increases the maximum speed on the Tohoku Shinkansen from 320 to 360km/h, trains are permitted to operate at 260km/h through the Seikan tunnel, and the Hokkaido Shinkansen is approved for 360km/h operation.

The only other high-speed project currently planned in Japan is JR Central's Yen 9 trillion Chuo maglev line which will initially connect Tokyo with Nagoya, thereby helping to relieve congestion on the Tokaido Shinkansen. Construction is already underway on a 23.8km extension of the test track in Yamanashi Prefecture, taking the total length to 42.2km. This will become part of the initial 286km section of the Chuo line between Tokyo and Nagoya, completion of which is scheduled for 2027. A 152km extension from Nagoya to Shin-Osaka is envisaged by 2045. Trains will operate at up to 505km/h on the 438km line, offering a Tokyo - Osaka journey time of just 67 minutes compared with 2h 35min today by the 515km Tokaido Shinkansen.

50 years of the Shinkansen

THIS year marks the 50th anniversary of the Tokaido Shinkansen, the world's first purpose-built high-speed railway. The 515km standard-gauge railway revolutionised rail travel in Japan and sparked the construction of high-speed networks around the world.

When the line opened on October 1 1964 the maximum speed was 210km/h with a four-hour journey time, which was reduced to 3h 10min a year later. Since then, the line speed has been increased to 270km/h and the journey time cut to 2h 30min in 1992. The fastest N700 train today completes the trip in 2h 27min with four intermediate stops.

Funding the Shinkansen

JAPAN Railway Construction, Transport and Technology Agency (JRTT) is responsible for the construction of high-speed lines in Japan. Projects are funded by partly by government with two-thirds coming from the national government and one-third from local authorities, and partly through income from leasing the lines to the JR Group railways.

Once a new Shinkansen line has been completed, JRTT leases it to the JR railway operating in the area where the line has been built, which then takes over responsibility for operating and maintaining the new line.