Robo-Shinkansen rolls slowly – for now – across 5km of Japan

Railway wants self-driving bullet trains overseen by staff that aren't trained as drivers


Japan's largest train operator, the East Japan Railway Company, has successfully trialled an autonomous bullet train.

The Wednesday test run was short – travelling just under five kilometres down the Joetsu line from Niigata Station. Nor did the train reach top speed of 300km/h, maxing out at 110km/h.

But the train did come to a complete stop just 7.5cm from its intended stopping point – a result the railway deemed very promising, given the Shinkansen has a 50cm stopping zone.

East Japan conducted the test under its "Move UP 2027" plan that identifies self-driving cars as a threat to demand for rail transport. "Since our railway business has large fixed costs, we face a high risk of a drastic profit loss", states a vision document [PDF] that describes the plan.

Japanese media report the autonomous Shinkansen trial was also staged with a view to a time when Japan's ageing and shrinking population makes recruiting train drivers harder.

Future tests will accelerate the Shinkansen to 200km/h. The trains will be autonomous, but staff aboard the vehicle will have sufficient skill to intervene if needed. Those workers will not, however, be fully trained Shinkansen drivers – a reflection of the Railway Company's confidence in its automation and recognition of difficulty recruiting and training drivers.

How – or whether – the wider rail network will cope with robo-trains wasn't discussed. ®

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