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Faster bullet train aims to give airlines a run for their money

JR East's new shinkansen to shorten trip from Tokyo to Sapporo by 3 hours

A prototype nose section, still incomplete, of a next-generation shinkasen bullet train capable of traveling at 360 km per hour. (Photo by Keigo Iwamoto)
A prototype nose section, still incomplete, of a next-generation shinkasen bullet train capable of traveling at 360 km per hour. (Photo by Keigo Iwamoto)

TOKYO -- East Japan Railway unveiled Wednesday a cutting-edge shinkansen bullet train that is expected to slash by nearly 40% the travel time between Tokyo and Sapporo when the route goes into service.

By speeding up travel time, the railway company commonly known as JR East hopes to draw travelers who normally buy air tickets, much like it has done with another high-speed line launched a few years ago.

A test car for the next-generation Alfa-X shinkansen made its public debut in Kobe on Wednesday. With its sleek and aerodynamic design, punctuated by a 16-meter nose, the train will be capable of speeds up to 360 km an hour. Assembly of the Alfa-X is halfway completed, and a test run is slated for May of next year.

It currently takes about eight hours to travel by train from the nation's capital to Sapporo -- the biggest city in Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan's four main islands. But the Hokkaido Shinkansen line, which runs from Aomori Prefecture and currently ends at Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station in the southern part of the island, is set to be extended to Sapporo Station in fiscal 2030, when the Alfa-X is expected to go into service. The Hokkaido Shinkansen is operated by Hokkaido Railway.

JR East did not specify how much time would be shaved if the shinkansen route from Tokyo is extended to Sapporo, but estimates put the trip at nearly five hours, based on the distance.

Airlines virtually monopolize travel between Tokyo and Sapporo. Last year, 9.01 million passengers jetted between Hokkaido's New Chitose Airport and Haneda airport in Tokyo, making it the busiest domestic route. JR East hopes to capture a large chunk of that traffic by targeting tourists who enjoy train rides, especially foreigners who land in Tokyo.

A JR East shinkansen ride from Tokyo to Shin-Aomori Station, which connects to the Hokkaido Shinkansen in northern Honshu, costs around 17,000 yen ($150) -- more than a flight ticket between Tokyo and Sapporo, which can go for less than 10,000 yen. But JR East is confident that passengers will be willing to pay the premium, based on past experience.

In fiscal 2014, airplanes controlled a 58% share of travelers between Tokyo and Kanazawa, a city on Japan's western coast, compared with 42% for rail. After the Hokuriku Shinkansen tying the two cities opened for business in March 2015, the ratio flip-flopped. Rail enjoyed a 74% slice of traffic in fiscal 2017, while airlines sank to 26%.

The turnaround is heavily attributed to the time saved by the bullet train -- what used to be a roughly five-hour train trip was shortened to about two and a half hours.

When a shinkansen line opened between Shin-Aomori and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto stations in March 2016, there was an uptick in traffic between Tokyo and the city of Hakodate. Rail was the transportation choice for 35% of travelers in fiscal 2016, JR East says, up from 13% before the high-speed rail connection.

But JR East will have to clear some hurdles before it can challenge airlines. For one, trains make more noise the faster they run, which would violate noise-pollution rules. To get around that problem, the company is developing an Alfa-X with a nose longer than the prototype displayed Wednesday.

"We seek to balance speed with a pleasant experience," said a lead developer.

Another potential obstacle is the long hours needed to travel to Sapporo from Tokyo -- whether or not it's by the Alfa-X. The same route takes about an hour and a half by air, but JR East plans to turn the five-hour time span into a selling point by offering superior services. The company provides a wide selection of food and drinks, and its "Gran Class" luxury seating is in high demand.

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