TOKYO (majirox news) – Believe it or not, the Shinkansen has been kicked out of the running as a candidate for America’s high speed rail because it can’t meet new American railroad safety requirements. One could almost hear audible gasps of astonishment in Japan.
“If the Shinkansen ever collided with a freight train, the survival of the passengers and crew was something that never entered our thoughts,” said a representative of JR East. “The Shinkansen runs on special tracks and no other train is ever allowed on it. So there has never been any reason to ever think about it.” JR East had pushed hard to export the Shinkansen.
The U.S. Department of Transportation in the middle of January sent out a list of 13 safety requirements for high speed trains to railroad manufacturers worldwide, including Japan. One requirement was that if a high speed train crashes into a stopped train at 20 miles an hour (about 32 kilometers per hour) crew and passengers have to survive the collision. Furthermore, if the train collides with a truck loaded with 18 tons of steel coil stalled at a crossing the engineer has to survive. As it stands now, the Shinkansen can’t meet these requirements.
Put it another way, if the Shinkansen collides with another train about the speed a race horse can gallop at an all out canter, there is a clear possibility that crew or passengers could be killed or injured.
“The Shinkansen itself has been a very successful train in countries that have rail systems like Japan,” says Kevin van Douwen, a hydraulics engineer who consults for the Dutch Railway System. “Here in the Netherlands we use 400 Japanese made engines and cars based on the Shinkansen, but running at much slower speeds on a rail system somewhat like Japans.”
Germany’s Inter City Express, ICE, France’s Train à Grande Vitesse, TVG, and the Shinkansen are among the world’s premier high speed trains that run in conditions far different from the United States but different from Japan. In fact, the ICE had accidents like the ones that the Americans fear.
The differences between German and American railways are more obvious than their similarities. In the U.S. there are often grade level crossings where automobile traffic has to stop for the train to pass, where freight trains and passenger trains run on the same track and areas that livestock and wild animals can easily get on the track.
In densely populated Germany it’s different. For one thing there are overpasses, dedicated track, grade level crossings are unknown, and there are no vast areas of wilderness. Even so there have been collisions with other trains, vehicles and livestock.
“The ICE runs in Austria, Denmark, Switzerland and to a limited extent in Holland and Belgium, too,” Van Douwen says. “Unfamiliarity with foreign systems may have been the cause of the crash.”
The ICE collided at about 56 km/h head on with a stopped Swiss train April 2006. Thirty passengers and the driver of the ICE suffered minor injuries and the driver of the Swiss train leapt off before the collision. But both trains were close to a total loss.
“The Americans may have had this crash in mind when they wrote their new regulations,” Van Douwen says. “They want the crew and passengers to be able to walk away from a wreck.”
The ICE had collisions with trucks and tractors that fell off from overpasses. There was even a collision with a herd of sheep that managed to get on the tracks. Although there were injuries and sometimes serious ones, no one has been killed. This may have had to do with the initial design, and an expectation that accidents like these were possible.
“We’ve asked the various manufacturers whether they can reinforce their trains to meet the American requirements,” JR East told the Japanese publication the Asahi Shimbun. “But from what we’ve gathered, they apparently see no reason to do so.”
Japanese manufacturers point out that its lighter carriages use less fuel, are more energy efficient, and reinforcing them enough to meet American standards would make them heavier and turn them into the railroad equivalent of gas guzzlers.
Florida intends to open bidding for a high speed rail line in the middle of February. Don’t look for a Shinkansen to pull into Tampa soon, or ever for that matter, unless there is a huge change of heart among Japanese railroad equipment manufacturers.