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Japan's fastest bullet train to squeeze out trip every 5 minutes

Meticulous planning and technology are behind Nozomi's packed timetable

All older bullet train models on the Tokaido shinkansen line will be replaced with the N700A, which has a top speed of 285 km per hour. (Photo by Masayuki Kozono)

TOKYO -- Japan's fastest Nozomi shinkansen bullet train service will start running as frequently as every five minutes between Tokyo and Osaka next spring, thanks to new trains and station updates to allow for one of the most tightly-packed rail schedules in the world.

Central Japan Railway will replace all of its older bullet train models in the spring of 2020 with the N700A, which has a top speed of 285 km per hour and can travel between the Tokyo and Shin-Osaka stations in under two and a half hours. This will allow the operator to revamp its timetable, now arranged around the slower models, increasing the number of Nozomi trains in an hour to a maximum of 12 from 10.

The key is to maximize the use of the tracks, since the Tokaido shinkansen line only has one in each direction. Eliminating the older models means the faster N700A will no longer be stuck waiting behind slower trains.

JR Tokai, as the rail operator is commonly known, is also working to shorten the turnaround at Tokyo Station. That terminal has six platforms dedicated to the Tokaido shinkansen, which all share the same single inbound and outbound tracks. With as many as 17 bullet trains per hour, including the slower Hikari and Kodama trains, scheduling changes come down to adjustments measured in mere seconds.

The railway will invest about 3.2 billion yen ($29.1 million) on updates -- improving brakes so trains can stop more quickly and giving the newer trains faster acceleration -- to shave off about a dozen seconds from the amount of time each train is at the station. It is also bolstering its electrical substation and adding data capacity to its train control system.

A total of 174 million riders took the Tokaido shinkansen in fiscal 2018, more than the entire population of Japan, with the line serving 434 trains on its busiest day last August. Even then, seats fill up quickly during the Golden Week holidays around early May and during school summer breaks. JR Tokai has gradually expanded its Nozomi service for some time so it does not lose out on potential customers.

Nozomi service is not expected to increase beyond 12 per hour, however, considering a maglev shinkansen line slated to open in 2027 is expected to connect Tokyo and Nagoya in an even quicker 40 minutes.

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