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Japan's Azuma high-speed train begins service in UK

Hitachi-made train can run on diesel fuel on nonelectrified lines

The Azuma high-speed train will begin regular service on Wednesday. (Photo by Minoru Satake)

LONDON -- The first of the new Japanese-made Azuma high-speed trains will begin regular operations in the U.K. on Wednesday, marking a milestone that one person sees as Japan giving back to the British Isles.

The new trains, built by Hitachi, will serve a 300 km stretch between London and Leeds in central England, at speeds topping at around 200 kph. The line will later be extended north to Scotland.

The train promises high performance to the extent that it can rival airplanes, said Robin Gisby, chairman of London North Eastern Railway, which ordered the Azuma. He also sees significant demand for business and tourism.

The Azuma, which means "east" in Japanese, is able to minimize vibrations while travelling at high speeds. It can also run on diesel fuel when it encounters lines that are not electrified, affording rail operators the opportunity to make flexible train schedules and boost transport efficiency, proponents say.

Hitachi assembles the Azuma locally at a facility at the northeastern town of Newton Aycliffe. The Japanese company looks to sell the Azuma to other lines, and land major orders for the U.K.'s High Speed 2 next-generation rail project.

Since purchasing an Italian rolling stock company in 2015, sales at Hitachi's rail business have grown to about 620 billion yen ($5.7 billion) for the year ended March. Hitachi aims to lift the figure to 1 trillion yen within the next decade. It is looking at expanding its British facilities, but such a move would depend on how smoothly the U.K.'s exit from the European Union is carried out.

London North Eastern Railway previewed the Azuma on Tuesday, with Junichi Kawabata, head of Hitachi's Kasado Works in Japan's Yamaguchi Prefecture, present for a test run. Kasado Works produces parts of the Azuma.

"In the 19th century, Japan imported rail technology from the U.K.," said Kawabata. "Now we are delivering trains with a feeling of gratitude."

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