To Bullet Train, or Not to Bullet Train: Why not do Both?
The Free Gauge Train
New Tech in Testing
This past weekend, the Asahi Shimbun reported that the Kyushu Railway Company began testing a very special supertech rail vehicle: the Free Gauge Train (FGT). It's special because it can do Bullet Training, but can also tighten up and get its Local Train on.
The trick is that the train’s wheels - or whatever we call those huge steel discs, because "wheels" seems awkward - can vary the train's lateral wheelbase to fit whichever track it needs to ride. It might seem a simple technology, but it’s totally not - this prototype high-and-regular-speed train is 17 years in the works, and is the first of its kind in Japan.
So, okay yeah, being able to narrow down the train’s lateral footprint is pretty cool, but why do that?
Because it’s Really Expensive to Build Two Sets of Tracks, Two Rail Yards (real estate is expensive), Two Kinds of Maintenance Equipment, Etc., Etc.
Now, Japan is famous for its high-speed rail this and that, the safety and super fast & comfy and on and on - we’re not here to reinvent the standard intro on the what, who, and how of J-rail. It’s the Japanese bullet train. The Shinkansen.* It’s awesome. You really should already know that.
But okay, if you are not hip to the Shinkansen, it's like this:
Even the oldest, cheapest Shinkansen seat is like airline first-class…but better, because you can get up and walk around anytime. To the vending machines. Maybe even the smoking room. Or like, just because you want to walk. Most trains have electrical outlets. They're super clean. Most have 3G wireless; some have wi-fi. There’s a roving food card selling souvenirs and boxed lunches and beer. A nice little hook for your jacket. Spacious bathrooms. No ridiculous security checks. Approximately 160-180 MPH (270-290 KPH). And, they're renowned for being aggressively on-time.
Naturally, all that awesomeness comes at considerable cost to companies and customers, and a very large chunk of overall expense lies in the Shinkansen’s specialized construction and maintenance equipment. Express and commuter trains can’t run on Shinkansen tracks (and probably never will/can/should), and that cannot be helped, but with a train like this, high-speed cars could switch to the smaller tracks, and that would add yet another notch to the Bullet Train's Awesomeness Belt.
So, after 3 more years of testing, if it turns out that this guy right here can do both, everybody wins.
What it’s Like:
Riding the Sakura Shinkansen: Kumamoto to Fukuoka
Photos: Asahi Shimbun; JR Kyushu
*Guess what, Shinkansen just means “New Main Line.” Which is kinda disappointing, right? It should mean something like “Four-Bladed Throwing Knife.” So sad.