With HS2 (the proposed high speed rail link from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, reputed to cost £80 billion and the subject of considerable opposition from local people) in the news again, I thought I’d take a look at high speed trains because – guess what – that’s something the Japanese are rather good at.
To begin at the beginning: before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics there was an unprecedented explosion of development that turned the city from the burnt-out husk left by the Second World War into the beginnings of the high-tech supercity we know today. Crucial to this transformation was the first bullet train (the ‘O’ series) which ran from Tokyo to Osaka on its own dedicated track (hence the name, Shinkansen or New Trunk Line) at a mind-boggling 210 miles an hour, shortening the previous six hour forty minute trip to a mere four hours (three hours ten minutes by 1965).
The ‘O’ series lasted an amazingly long time – the final set was retired in 2008 and the driver’s cab from one is now on show at the National Railway Museum in York.
Nowadays the N700 series runs between Tokyo and Osaka with the fastest train, the Nozomi, taking two hours twenty-five minutes. They’re famously punctual, which is partly due to the separate track they run on, meaning they don’t get delayed by slower traffic. Though they do stop running for earthquakes and typhoons. (They have an earthquake detection system that stops them automatically).
But the E5 series bullet trains on the Tohoku line are faster than that. They began running at 320 miles an hour in March this year and there are plans to increase that to 360 miles an hour by 2020.
There are three main manufacturers of high speed trains in Japan – Hitachi, Nippon Sharyo and Kawasaki Heavy Industries.
You might expect the high speed trains that run though the channel tunnel to be Japanese, but you’d be wrong. The Eurostar trains are British Rail Class 373 and they aren’t made by Hitachi – they’re part of the TGV family, and they’re built by Alstom in La Rochelle, Washwood Heath and Bruges.
Hitachi’s first contract to supply trains in the UK was for the Javelin in 2005. The trains run on the Eurostar line, but it’s a domestic service to Ashford and the Kent Coast. The Javelin service was a key transport link for the London Olympics in 2012, running from St Pancras to Stratford International.
Javelin trains are named after Olympic athletes, with the first one being named after Dame Kelly Holmes and the twenty-ninth after David Weir, ten times Paralympic medallist.
If you want a Hornby Javelin train set, the Sir Chris Hoy is available.
The Javelin trains weren’t made in the UK. They were manufactured in Japan and shipped over, all twenty-nine of them. But the next generation, the class 800 series, which will run on the East Coast Main Line, starting in 2019, will be manufactured by Hitachi Rail Europe at a new purpose-built factory in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham. The new trains will cut journey times between London, Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh by up to 18 minutes.