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Shinkansen ins-and-outs from a real driver

Shinkansen ins-and-outs from a real driver

Ever wondered why the Shinkansen is on time right down to the minute? Or how the train always comes to a stop lined up with the queue markings and door position indicators? I had the opportunity to meet the Sendai Shinkansen Transportation Area's driver team to find out more about their operations, and also their recommendation on what to look out for as you travel by Shinkansen.


About JR East's Shinkansen

The Shinkansen that are operated by JR East forms a network starting from Tōkyō Station (東京駅 Tōkyō-eki). From Tokyo, it branches out in five directions, covering Eastern Japan, with trains directly connecting to cities such as Sendai (仙台市 Sendai-shi) in Miyagi Prefecture in the region of Tohoku (東北), and Nagano (長野市 Nagano-shi) in Nagano Prefecture in the region of Shinetsu (信越).


The E5 series on the Tohoku Shinkansen. (Image credit: JR East)


Some of the services that ply the Tohoku Shinkansen include Hayabusa, Yamabiko, Hayate, and the Nasuno, with the difference being the number and location of stations they stop at. The key point of interest in the Shinkansen is undoubtedly its speed: on the Tohoku Shinkansen, it can run at a maximum speed of 320km/h, making it the fastest rail transport in Japan. However, even at this speed, the Shinkansen maintains quietness and comfort inside the train, making it almost imperceptible to passengers. It is highly recommended to experience a ride on Hayabusa to feel it firsthand. 


Most of all, the punctuality of Shinkansen’s arrivals and departures at designated times is a significant selling point. When considering domestic travel, it is worth using the Shinkansen for precise and timely journeys.


How Shinkansen drivers achieve astonishing punctuality

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Shinkansen drivers carrying out handover reporting during a driver change. (Image credit: JR East)


Shinkansen drivers of JR East belong to several crew bases in the East Japan area, and the driver team at the Sendai Shinkansen Transportation Area is responsible for the entire Tohoku Shinkansen and handling of the E5 series, which can run at a top speed of 320 km/h. 


Due to the high velocity of Shinkansen travel, dedicated high-performance rail facilities and safety devices are in place to enable safe and stable high-speed operation. JR East's Shinkansen, which traverses many areas with heavy snowfall, is well-equipped with measures such as snow-melting devices using warm water to address snow-related challenges.


While snowfall often delays trains on conventional lines, the Shinkansen can operate at normal speed during light snowfall, and even at its rated top speed.


E5 series Shinkansen train operating in snow conditions. (Image credit: photoAC)


Some may think that Shinkansen operates entirely in automatic mode, but it actually involves manual control by Shinkansen drivers, combined with automatic control through dedicated safety devices. The drivers make critical decisions, such as determining speed and calculating passing times to the next station. From there, they then adjust their speed accordingly to ensure they pass through stations on time as scheduled, right down to the second. 


For example, a quick mental calculation will conclude that a Shinkansen moving at 300km/h will take two minutes to cover 10km, and less when moving at the top speed of 320km/h. Drivers consistently make such calculations while in control to ensure that they arrive at the necessary time checkpoints and stations as scheduled.


When it comes to stopping at a station, the speed is determined based on a backward calculation of the time required for deceleration, and coming to a complete stop at the arrival time. When approaching a station, deceleration control is managed automatically, but the brakes are manually operated by the Shinkansen driver until the train comes to a stop.


The E5 series operating normally thanks to automation and the train driver's skills and experience. (Image credit: photoAC)


In addition, unique to human drivers, consideration is given to the timing of brakes used to make the ride as comfortable as possible. Shinkansen drivers also proactively adjust speeds in anticipation of upcoming speed restrictions due to poor weather further ahead, thereby mitigating delays. They possess in-depth knowledge of the vehicle systems, and can perform emergency measures while on the move if a malfunction occurs. They can make an appropriate judgement if there’s a requirement to stop the Shinkansen for safety reasons based on the situation.


The safe and stable operation of Shinkansen depends not only on the skills of the drivers, but also on the perfect maintenance of facilities and safety devices, coupled with rigorous operational management. On top of this, the Shinkansen drivers carry out stable operations based on precise calculations to achieve astonishingly on-time operation.


Daily training of Shinkansen drivers

To provide safety, security, and comfort to passengers, Shinkansen drivers undergo regular training using simulators and other training facilities to handle vehicle malfunctions and unexpected situations. The high punctuality of Japan's Shinkansen is a result of the accumulation of such daily training. This is unique to the Shinkansen, where drivers respond to situations to avoid any interference with driving, while ensuring on-time operations.


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Simulator training prepares drivers to be ready to respond quickly and accurately to situations. (Image credit: JR East)


Shinkansen drivers are trained to remain calm and make informed decisions even in situations like sudden vehicle troubles. This ability allows them to maintain the high-speed operation at 320 km/h while making accurate situational judgements.


I had the opportunity to try the simulator, but as expected, a complete novice like me missed the visual marker on the station platform indicating the exact stopping position, and on top of that, I arrived late into the station as well, even during the most perfect weather situation.


Noteworthy spots to experience the power of Shinkansen

You can enjoy observing the Shinkansen’s operation from station platforms. In this instance, the driver team from the Sendai Shinkansen Transportation Area recommends Fukushima Station on the Tohoku Shinkansen as a spot where you can make delightful observations. Did you know? The Tohoku Shinkansen, in addition to operating at the fastest speed of 320km/h, is the only train line where Shinkansen train cars are coupled together and operate as one, and Fukushima Station is where you get an opportunity to experience both!


First, let's observe the Hayabusa running past at a top speed of 320km/h. Hayabusa is a train service that doesn't stop at Fukushima Station, so it will pass through it instead. Automated announcements will be made several times at the platform to warn passengers about its passing, and shortly after, they will witness the train swiftly passing through the station. It is an incredibly powerful sight, especially during winter when the train will leave flying snow in its wake.


Secondly, you can witness the connection at Fukushima Station, where the Tohoku Shinkansen and the Yamagata Shinkansen are coupled/decoupled. Here, you can observe the decoupling and coupling of the Yamabiko (E2 series) and Tsubasa (E3 series) trains. The Yamagata Shinkansen, which adopted the through operation of Shinkansen directly onto conventional lines for the first time in Japan in July 1992, links with the Tohoku Shinkansen to run together between Tokyo and Fukushima. 


The Tsubasa getting ready to couple with the Yamabiko (not pictured) before heading onwards to Tokyo. (Image credit: JR East)


Consequently, you can witness the Shinkansen that travelled together along the Tohoku Shinkansen head off to separate destinations at Fukushima Station. And vice versa, you can observe Shinkansen trains arriving from different directions and coupling together. The coordination between the conductor's guidance and the driver's operation during the coupling process is very intriguing, providing a moment of remarkable spectacle.


A conductor coordinating with the driver through wireless communication to ensure a smooth coupling of trains. (Image credit: JR East)


It is worth noting that decoupling and coupling also occur at Morioka Station (盛岡駅) for the Hayabusa and Komachi trains. However, there are no trains passing through that station at a speed of 320 km/h, so Fukushima Station is the only place where you can experience both the "passing" and "connection" from the same platform.



The new E8 series. (Image credit: JR East)


A new Shinkansen model, the E8 series, will make its debut on the Yamagata Shinkansen from 16 March this year. The train will travel at a top speed of 300km/h, an increase from the current speed of 275km/h. What's more, all trains are equipped with a Full Active Suspension that will generate force automatically to suppress rolling when running at high speeds. On top of this improvement in ride comfort, all seats will be equipped with power outlets, unlike in older trains where only selected seats come with them, so that you can charge your electronics with ease!


When travelling to Japan, please enjoy a comfortable journey onboard the Shinkansen and experience its unique power, which can only be felt in Japan. Shinkansen drivers will continue their daily training efforts to enhance their skills further and aim to deliver a continued sense of safety, security, and excitement to all passengers in the future.


Next, we will also have another feature on the Shinkansen, this time from the perspective of a conductor.


JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

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The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)


The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) is an affordable pass that offers unlimited train rides on JR East lines, including bullet trains and Joyful Trains, within the valid area for 5 consecutive days. It is only ¥30,000 with 5 consecutive days of unlimited use, making it a great companion for your railway trip. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to 1 month in advance for free on the JR-EAST Train Reservation.


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The JR-EAST Train Reservation. (Image credit: JR East)


For reference, to witness the coupling and decoupling of trains at Fukushima Station, the trip costs around ¥9,000 between Tokyo Station and Fukushima Station, thus making the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) a great deal if you are visiting multiple locations within the valid areas.


The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.


Header image credit: JR East 


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