Five questions for Alfa-X: the world’s fastest bullet train
Japan recently unveiled its next-generation bullet train Alfa-X, which will run at a maximum speed of 240mph once in operation in 2030. As tests kick off, Adele Berti answers the five questions that the industry will be asking about the train.
All images courtesy of Caledonian Sleeper
apan’s renowned passion for cutting-edge train technology and high-speed transport is back to astonish the rail industry with the launch of a brand-new bullet train called Alfa-X.
A futuristic-looking missile with a 72-feet long nose at its front, the new Series 956 Alfa-X is comprised of ten carriages and can reach top speeds of 248mph.
A marvel of engineering and technology capable of handling adverse weather conditions and terrain challenges, Alfa-X is short for ‘Advanced Labs for Frontline Activity in rail eXperimentation’.
Having been on tracks for testing since May, Alfa-X trains are expected to become operational in 2030 - once the Hokkaido Shinkansen to Sapporo line has been extended - and carry passengers at speeds up to 224mph.
It is forecast to be a game changer for the country’s rail transport, allowing operator JR East to connect the two key cities of Tokyo and Sapporo – which are almost 700 miles apart – in about three hours.
What else is there to know about Alfa-X? Here are the five questions on the rail industry’s lips and everything we know so far.
Will Alfa-X be the fastest train on earth?
No. The fastest train in the world is Shanghai’s Maglev train, another masterpiece of engineering capable of running at 280mph. Hovering above magnetic tracks, the maglev train can cover 19 miles of line in about seven minutes and 20 seconds.
Japan itself – together with several other countries – is currently testing its own version of a Maglev train that has already hit 374mph during tests. Scheduled to come into operation in 2027, it will be used to link Tokyo and Nagoya.
But all is not lost for the Alfa-X, which still takes the record of fastest bullet train in the world, outclassing local and international competitors.
The train was designed by Japanese manufacturers Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Hitachi, making use of ultra-light materials and a range of features to support increased velocity.
How will Alfa-X cope with Japan’s mountains and frequent earthquakes?
Japan has quite a mountainous landscape and is often subjected to earthquakes, making the question of safety essential for the train’s success.
Adding to the problem is the fact that a considerable portion of the Japanese rail network runs through tunnels. Finally, when it comes to route sections where the land is flat, the line has been built in close proximity to residential areas, leading fears around high levels of pollution.
The Alfa-X is therefore extremely aerodynamic and has been equipped with stability controls and noise reduction technologies that make it efficient in adverse conditions.
The new bullet train also has an advanced active suspension system with pneumatic springs and a vertical vibration control device. It also features carbide semiconductors in both the traction and auxiliary power controls to tackle steep gradients and reduce energy consumption.
With the risk of earthquakes constantly lurking, Alfa-X is also fitted with air brakes on the roof, while magnetic plates are positioned near the tracks to support deceleration.
Lastly, to improve performance during Japan’s snowy winter season, Kawasaki and Hitachi have redesigned the car body to reduce accumulation of snow around the bogies.
What’s with the big nose?
There are actually two types of big noses, on which tests are currently being carried out. The first is a 52ft nose, which is just slightly longer than the current E5 series Shinkansen, while the second is much longer, at 75ft.
This nose is not just a bold design choice, but rather has a specific speed and safety-related purpose. It has been designed to eliminate pressure waves that push against the train when it goes through a tunnel.
Known among engineers as the ‘piston effect’, this phenomenon is particularly dangerous when trains go at very high speeds like in the case of the Alfa-X.
“The reason for the 'odd' nose shapes is to decrease the gradient of a pressure wave which is created as a train enters a tunnel, with a view to decreasing micro-pressure wave emission at the tunnel exits,” David Soper, a lecturer in vehicle aerodynamics at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Railway Research and Education, told Wired.
High-pressure waves are more frequent and accumulate faster if the front of the train is flat. Adding a big 72ft nose helps minimise the risk, as pressure waves accumulate at a slower rate.
The nose’s design was inspired by one of the first bullet train models, which was created by engineer Eiji Nakatsu in 1997.
Will we ever see Alfa-X anywhere else in the world?
An aerodynamic, gigantic nose, high speeds and the latest rail technologies on the market should probably be enough to catch the industry’s eye across the world, yet Alfa-X’s international success is hardly guaranteed.
Despite being designed by some of the most prestigious manufacturers in the world – including Kawasaki and Hitachi – Japan’s bullet trains have previously struggled to find success in foreign markets.
Yet recent opportunities have arisen, with the Japanese railways now reportedly targeting Taiwan and the US state of Texas as potential buyers.
According to recent reports, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also recently announced plans to sell Maglev technology to the US as part of plans to build a new Maglev line between New York and Washington.
With Hyperloop also gaining traction in the US, the chances of seeing Japanese bullet train technology in the country may be higher than ever.
Why is Japan obsessed with high-speed bullet trains?
Japan is a huge investor in new technologies across a multitude of sectors, but cutting-edge, high-speed trains are some of the country’s flagship products.
In particular, bullet trains have become a symbol of Japan’s technological proficiency and proverbial punctuality.
They are also a key driver of economic and tourism growth. With only 20% of Japan’s land being inhabitable, the country’s cities are densely populated and distributed across a small number of locations.
Bullet trains have, in this sense, been crucial as a means of quickly moving commuters between cities, as well as connecting the biggest centres to rural areas.
Tourism has also greatly benefitted from high-speed bullet trains, with research showing that visitors are more inclined to visit remote places if they are easily reachable via rail.