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Monday, October 6, 2014

Lightweight To Help Shinkansen Trains Travel Faster

I've said it before - unless you are a woman - faster is better... unless you are a hooker, in which case move-in, move'em out, Rawhide.

Does anyone else get these references to 50+ year-old American television shows? I don't even know why I get'em!

Anyhow... JR East, Japan's main railroad operator in the (d'uh) eastern part of Japan is working with Osaka University to create lightweight materials that can be used to make trains lighter and thus, faster.

As of right now, the top speed on the Japanese shinkansen bullet trains is 320 kilometers per hour (198.8 mph). Actually, the trains run from between 270 (167.8)-320 kph.

But the goal is for the JR subsidiary firm of Japan Transport Engineering (JTE), is to get them up to speeds between 350-400 kph (217.5-248.5 mph).

Lightweighting is nothing new. Airplanes, cars and even packaging have been doing it for years. I've even heard that some people do that enabling them to move faster, but I no longer have proof of that.

Of course, not only would the lightweighting of any train parts need to be able to maintain performance, but it should be able to do so within normal safety parameters.

However... the whole goal, which is scheduled to be completed by 2023, makes me wonder just WTF they were doing - or not doing before?! Why wouldn't you be trying to lightweight your shinkansen? It would seem like common sense?

Truth is, I bet they were doing it - but I suspect the time is ripe to take it to another level.

According to team leader professor Fujii Hidetoshi (surname first), they have figure out a way to utilize a magnesium alloy to help shed the bulky weight of the train by coming up with a a new way of welding the alloy to avoid strength degradation.

It is suspected that by using this magnesium alloy, it can decrease the weight of the shinkansen, as it weighs about two-thirds less than the aluminum alloy currently being used in Japan's shinkansen rolling stock.

I'm a model train guy, and I thought that the term 'rolling stock' refers only to the non-motorized vehicles on the rail... the motorized cars are referred to as 'running stock', but perhaps Japan uses the term more liberally to include both.

Still... two-thirds as much? Wouldn't that imply that it is now 66.7% lighter? I'm not a math guy. But is that were to be the case, could we not expect to see even greater speed increases than what is proposed?

Slow down, hotshot. The plan is not to replace every bit of aluminum alloy, as the strength and heat shield it provides might be necessary for certain parts.

Get Along Little Bogie
The goal of JR East is not just limited to speed increases, as it is also working with the Railway Technical Research Institute (RTRI) to develop the latest in quieter bogies.

What's a bogie? I'm so glad you asked, because I knew this one already (train guy). A bogie is the chassis attached to the train that holds the wheels.

It's the stuff that dreams are made of, kid. Sorry... a joke based on a 73-year-old movie - The Maltese Falcon starring Humphrey Bogart - Bogey. Do I need to explain these? Maybe. I have some younger friends in their 20s who have never watched anything in black and white.

Kawasaki Heavy Industries' next-generation bogie in 2013 called the "efWING", using a Carbon Fiber Reinforced Polymer (CFRP) frame - and the RTRI wants something even better.
Anyhow, the new technology aims to remove the annoying clickety-clack noise - perhaps - by providing a smoother surface to dampen sounds caused by air resistance.

As well, the RTRI is looking to come up some sort of an improved lubricant for the wheels, and has so far created a hydrocarbon lubricant, that essentially allows the bearings parts to remain friction-free up to speeds of 420 kph (261 mph). They hope to have these wheels all greased up and in business by 2029... which is a hell of a long time from now. Hmmmm.

Better than a Cowcatcher
Ever since trains began running in the early days of the 19th century, some stupid cow would wander out onto the rails causing the train to have to stop by jamming on the brakes and to sliiiiiiiiiiide along the rails... or to smash into the unfortunate creature providing passengers with steak tar-tar. It could also cause the train to derail.

That's when the so-called cowcatcher was devised... it would still kill the cow, but the train didn't have to stop on the proverbial dime. The cowcatcher is purported to have been first designed by Charles Babbage, who, if you are using a computer to read this - and how the hell else are you reading this - you can also thank him, the father of the concept of the programmable computer.

But that's not something the RTRI is interested in. Cows are worth a lot of money in Japan. Still, that has nothing to do with anything. They hare also trying to create a braking system that stops so short you won't have time to reach across and feel anyone's boobs.

For Japan, the real goal is to stop very, very quickly should an earthquake hit under the area where a train is traveling.

While I understand the need for that.. in case the tracks quickly become warped throwing the whole train off the tracks, stopping too quickly could also have a negative impact for the people inside the train... you know... people being thrown forward... smashing into the back of others... necks broken, sake spilled!

Que Sera, Sera
(Yet another old movie - Hitchcock's 1956 thriller, The Man Who Knew Too Much - know, it's not about me.)

While I find it more than intriguing that Japan wants to increase the speed of its shinkansen - faster speeds can mean the world of difference to weary travelers - but these proposed speed goals of 400 kph seem a tad low to me.

You might recall that as far back as the 2007, France developed a high-speed train - another type of TGV - that reached an eye-watering speed of 574.8 kph (357.2 mph) in a test run with people aboard.

That's not happening yet - at least not in the real world. Even France doesn't dare have its trains try and travel that quickly... people need to feel same, after all.

Although, that hasn't stopped Japan from the Superconducting Maglev trains... magnetic levitation - whereby the train floats above the track.

The JR Tokai is in the process of constructing a Maglev train that will run up to speeds of 505 kph (313.8) - by 2027. That's four years longer, but over 100 kph (62.14 mph) more than what JR's regular shinkansen trains are promising.

A test in 2003 hit 581 kph (361 mph)! That was without passengers, so it doesn't count as a speed record, however. Still... here's a more recent video of the train with passengers doing 311 kph (193.2 mph).

Another research team led by Tohoku University professor Kohma Yasuaki (surname first) who will probably not live long enough to see it in practical operation, has create a train with wings and large fans that lift the whole vehicle between 5-10 centimeters (1.96-3.94 inches) above the surface. This so-called Aero-Train can travel at a speed of 200 kph (124.3 mph).

The goal, of course, is to lower resistance, by reducing friction. As well, it's real goal is to be a ZERO-emission train.

Interestingly, the Aero-Train uses 1/9th as much energy as the Maglev train, and the team feels it could one day reach speeds of up to 500 kph (310.7 mph). It purports to be able to carry 335 passengers.

However, because of the train's wings, it's going to require wider rails (for balance) and wider tunnels to be dug... which probably ain't happening in Japan...

Still... here's a video showing what it first looked like and what the second phase looked like:

All aboard,
Andrew Joseph


  1. They know they are on an island right? Do they really need to go 500km/h?

    1. Ha! It's a pretty wide island. But yeah, I never thought about that... why do they really need to go so fast? They'll kill the national air flights industry. Ohhhhhh....