Japan railway firms boosting efforts for automated operations

May 13, 2019; Tokyo, JPN; General overall view of Shinkansen train at the Hamamatsu railway station. The 2020 Summer Olympic Games, the games of the XXXII Olympiad, will be held in Tokyo on July 24-Aug 9, 2020. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Japanese railway operators have begun to make full-fledged efforts to introduce self-driving trains, Japan Times has reported.

Railway firms previously avoided implementing such technologies on existing train lines due to safety risks, but they are now facing the need to streamline operations as Japan’s falling population gradually shrinks the pool of potential drivers.

Central Japan Railway Co., or JR Central, said in March that it will introduce train cars equipped with automatic train operation, or ATO, technology in stages on its Tokaido Shinkansen bullet train line from around 2028.

Using the technology, which has already been tested on the line, drivers only need to press a button to start train operations. Running speeds are automatically adjusted, and trains stop at each station at the set time and location.

The technology enables drivers to take on tasks other than driving, such as opening and closing train doors, which is usually done by the conductor. Meanwhile, the conductor is freed up to focus on passenger service.

Then-JR Central President Shin Kaneko, now chairman of the company, said that the technology would enable the driver and conductor to split their workloads.

Under the Grade of Automation, or GoA, scale of railway automation, conventional train lines and streetcars in Japan are categorized as either GoA0 (on-sight train operation) or GoA1 (non-automated train operation). Meanwhile, so-called new transportation systems that run without on-train staff fall under the highest GoA4 category: unattended train operation.

The technology slated to be introduced on the Tokaido Shinkansen Line is in the GoA2 tier of semi-automated train operation.

Tokyo Metro is testing automated operations on some of its subway lines. | REUTERS
Subway operator Tokyo Metro Co., which has already introduced GoA2 train operations on the Marunouchi and Yurakucho lines, said in March that it will test GoA2.5 operations on the Marunouchi Line from fiscal 2025.

In GoA2.5 operations, a conductor is deployed in the front car of the train instead of a driver. Trains are controlled by radio waves, and conductors are tasked with operating emergency brakes and other work. GoA2.5 has yet to be put to practical use in Japan.

East Japan Railway Co., or JR East, conducted a trial of ATO technology on the Yamanote Line in Tokyo last year, which the company said resulted in a roughly 14% reduction in electricity consumption. It plans to introduce the technology in earnest by around 2028.

JR East aims to achieve GoA3, or driverless train operation, in which only a conductor is on board, for passenger service in the future.

Meanwhile, Kyushu Railway Co., or JR Kyushu, is testing GoA2.5 operations on Fukuoka Prefecture’s Kashii Line, which is a non-elevated line with railroad crossings. It hopes to introduce the technology by the end of fiscal 2024.

The test is gathering widespread attention as automated operations may hold the key to resolving problems faced by unprofitable train lines around the country.

However, conventional train lines, which have tunnels, railroad crossings and long distances between stations, face major obstacles to automation, unlike new transportation systems, which were built for automated driving and therefore have elevated tracks. Railway operators need to lower the risks of accidents and malfunctions in order to implement the technology.

The government is seeking to facilitate the adoption of automated driving, having compiled last September approaches to technical requirements for ensuring safety.


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