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Technology

Hitachi to use quasi-quantum tech to optimize train operations

Japanese giant will shorten complex, multiday staffing calculations to minutes

Hitachi will use quasi-quantum computing technology to automate and optimize train operations. (Photo by Konosuke Urata)

TOKYO -- Japanese industrial giant Hitachi is developing a system using quasi-quantum computing technology to automate and optimize train operations, Nikkei has learned.

Hitachi tested the system and created crew schedules in only 30 minutes -- a process that normally takes several days.

Japan lags behind the U.S. and China in the practical application of quantum technology. Hitachi's move to use the technology in the transportation sector could speed its adoption across Japan.

Hitachi will use its quasi-quantum computer -- termed complementary metal-oxide semiconductor annealing, or CMOS annealing -- to create a train operation plan. It initially developed a system to schedule crews based on a single train line, factoring in other conditions such as breaks and off-days after overnight work.

In a practical experiment with a train company at an operating section where 440 trains run daily, Hitachi's system calculated optimal personnel deployment out of 10 million combinations, taking only 30 minutes to select the most efficient task performance.

Railway companies rely mostly on staff know-how to plan operations.

Besides optimizing operations with current staff, the system may also be able to reduce the personnel needed to operate trains by 15%.

Hitachi hopes to market the system as early as fiscal 2022 and is targeting transportation providers both in Japan and overseas.

Calculating crew assignments in transportation has long been considered difficult to automate with existing binary computers. But Hitachi has automated the process by applying "quantum annealing," a process that quickly calculates a vast number of variables to find the optimal combination.

Hitachi is also developing a system to optimize train allocation, which distinguishes between cars that can go into operation from those that require maintenance. This minimizes the number of trains needed in fleets.

Developing a method to make railway maintenance and inspection routes less labor-intensive is also part of Hitachi's plans.

The company is also creating a system to generate timetables -- a process that up to now has required experienced employees. With rail operations often overlapping and overseen by multiple companies, making train schedules and staffing have become increasingly complex. The pandemic and its accompanying fluctuation in rail passengers has also revealed the need for further automation in the industry.

Japanese businesses are trying to catch up with the U.S. and China, which are leading in the practical application of quantum technology. Toshiba, NTT Group and others in September jointly launched Quantum Strategic industry Alliance for Revolution, or Q-STAR, to expand the use of the technology. Fujitsu is also aiming to leverage it to reduce debris in space.

Japan's railroad industry has a wide range of needs that can be addressed by the application of quantum technology. According to Yano Research Institute, Japan's quantum computing market stood at 13.9 billion yen in fiscal 2021 and is expected to hit 294 billion yen in 2030.

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