Transit Technologies

Japan Bets Big on New Transit


Andrew S. Jakes

President, Jakes Associates, Inc.

This article appeared originally in Mass Transit, March/April, 23:2 (1997), p22.

It is posted here with the permission of the author and Mass Transit.


While the whole world has been flirting with new transit technologies since the early sixties, the Japanese are successfully deploying them on a massive scale. Although many of these technologies conceptually originated in the US, North America remains largely unaware of the impacts these developments will have on the future of worldwide transit. Americans are observing a renaissance of light rail systems across the nation, but is the light rail concept going to stay? Is there any future for prohibitively expensive subways? Has Japan realized the value in monorail? And, what about those "cost effective" feeder systems? Let's go for a ride...

While occupying a relatively small continental land mass, Japan represents one of the most congested and developed nations in the world. Traffic congestion associated with urban sprawl are becoming enormous. The mobility solutions need to mitigate land-use congestion and maximize innovation to achieve optimum performance. Advanced, guideway transit systems fulfill these challenges and are gaining popularity among several Japanese municipalities at a brisk pace.

Japanese technology developers have developed and proven a variety of innovative rubber tired systems and designs. Full system operational automation, side or center guidance, and LIM propulsion technologies are becoming commonplace. They are known under a generic name of the "New Transport System" which is an expression for various means of transportation which do not fall under the definition of the existing conventional means of transportation such as railway and bus.

Maglev versus LIM

With all the publicity surrounding maglev development, LIM solutions have been overlooked by most of the world. By combining the advantages of conventional rail and its existing designs with the simplicity of LIM propulsion, Japanese companies are ahead of the rest of the world with implementation of hybrid rail/LIM vehicles for subway, commuter, and intercity applications. ( see Figure 1 )

Have you read those sharp articles about the uncontrollable cost of the Los Angeles subway construction (original cost estimate: $4 billion; current cost estimate: $5.8 billion)? Japan is gradually adopting linear motor subway cars for a reason. Osaka has the second largest subway network in Japan after Tokyo. The line No. 7 uses Series 70 linear motor drive cars, and one train is composed of 4 drive cars. The Tokyo Metropolitan Transportation Bureau has followed Osaka's example and now operates LIM driven cars on conventional rails.

These new vehicles were manufactured to achieve smaller size inverter control units and other equipment. The new bogies were built to lower the floor height (as low as 700 mm), maintain ceiling height, and increase passenger space with good comfort while greatly reducing the car height to decrease total vehicle size. Thus, it is possible to build a smaller, low profile tunnel that is faster to construct and substantially less expensive than a standard size subway. The outside diameter of the low profile tube is 5.3 meters compared to 7.3 meters for a standard tunnel (may vary depending on installation). Generally, the bore of tunnels can be reduced as much as 50% in a sectional area. In addition, with linear motors, which are non-adhesion driven, much steeper grades can be achieved, thus reducing the length of a given line. This subsequently results in land acquisition and bored material disposal savings which in major metropolitan areas are enormous.

In summary, the new design results in a significant reduction in subway construction cost, the magnitude of which will greatly depend on local urban and soil conditions, but could run into hundreds millions of dollars, even for a short system such as in Los Angeles. With to-date cost per mile of $290 million (or more) the LA system is one of the most expensive subways in the world. This is particularly true because vehicle costs are marginal in the overall cost spectrum and linear induction motor vehicle technology is proven and mature (successfully tested for subway applications in 1984).

Several other hybrid LIM programs on a People Mover scale have been initiated including LIMTRAIN in Saitama, Nippon-Otis system in Shibayama, and Skyrail in Hiroshima.

"New Transit" as an Alternative to "Light Rail"

Would you like to ride in a smaller, computer controlled vehicle arriving every couple of minutes (or as needed depending on demand) or in a large manual driven vehicle arriving every average fifteen minutes regardless of demand? Would you like to beware of those 90,000 lbs light rail vehicles entering mixed traffic intersection to not become a collision victim or rather observe safe, quiet, passing by vehicles on aesthetically pleasing elevated guideway?

The Tokyo Waterfront New Transit 'Rinkai Line' is a showcase of Japanese transit technology ( see Figure 2 ). It connects Shinbashi, Takeshiba, Hinode, Shibaurafuto, and several reclaimed areas along the Tokyo waterfront. Commonly referred to as the 'Waterfront Line', revenue service initiated in October, 1995 over an initial 7.5 mile (dual lane) system length serving 12 stations. The 'Rinkai Line' utilizes several train control and signaling features to efficiently transport up to 15,000 PPHPD with 2 minute headways. Trains normally operate in 6-vehicle train consists.

Kobe City rationalized its' public transit systems to include railroads as the main arteries, buses to serve as a capillary mode of conveyance, and the construction of a 'New Transit System' to serve as an intermediary mode complementing the other two. The 4.0 mile long Port Island Line ('Portliner') serves the railway stations at Sumiyoshi and Sannomiya, and Port Island through nine stations. Twelve trains are operated on the system in six-car train consists. The Portliner operates in an automatic configuration. The completion of the Rokko Island Line ('Rokkoliner') expanded system service through adding 6 more stations on Rokko Island and the construction of 2.8 more miles of guideway. 9 trains are operated on the Rokkoliner system in four-car train consists.

The Osaka Municipal Transportation Bureau and Niigata Engineering Co., Ltd. have jointly developed the medium capacity, 'Newtram' urban people mover concept to transport people throughout the Osaka Nanko region. The Newtram system is automated and operates on a 4.2 mile, dual lane guideway between the Suminoekoen subway station and the Nakafuto station in Port Town. The system serves eight stations.

The 'Kanazawa Seaside Line' serves a new development area built on reclaimed land. It connects with Negishi and Keihin Kyuko rail lines. An extension is planned from the current terminus at Kanazawa-Hakkei to link with the Keihin-Kyuko Railway (1998). The Kanazawa Seaside Line traverses a total system length of 6.6 miles, serves 14 stations and is designed to operate with minimum headways of three minutes. Seventeen trains are operated on the system in five-car consists.

The Hiroshima Rapid Transit System No. 1 Line provides the principle mode of public transportation between the urban core of Hiroshima City and its' northern residential communities. The system earned the distinguished reputation as the principle transportation method for visitors during the 12th Annual Asian Games in 1994. The system traverses a total system length of 11.5 miles and serves 21 stations.

The New Transit System 'Tokadai Line' connects a newly planned community, known as the Tokadai New Town (located within Komaki City, north of Nagoya) and the nearest Komaki Station of the Komaki Line. The dual lane guideway system traverses a distance of 4.6 miles and services a total of seven stations.

Urban Monorails where Anything Else would be Unthinkable

There is wide spread US perception that monorails belong to amusement parks and they are intended for low traffic volumes. Japan is world-renowned for its' massive operating urban monorail systems. Historically, Japanese planners have selected monorail system technology for its' high capacity operation, cost efficiency, and minimal land-use requirements. In several developed areas of Japan, congestion and population density simply will not accommodate the right-of-way land use requirements commonly associated with other forms of surface transportation.

In addition, monorail technology integrates effectively with other transportation modes, such as the intercity rail, to form efficient transportation feeder systems. Five major urban Japanese monorail systems have been built and are currently under expansion. Several new ones are in the planning stage. In addition, a few smaller scale systems operate in recreational settings. While the Chiba Urban Monorail system (the largest urban monorail system in the world and growing to 25 miles) is of the suspended design, several other Japanese systems are of a straddle configuration.

The Tokyo Monorail 'Haneda Line' traverses an 8.2 mile right-of-way between the Hamamatsucho rail station in the center of Tokyo and the Tokyo International Airport and serves 12 stations ( see Figure 3 ). In addition to its role as a transportation mode for the Haneda airport, it has directly contributed to large scale development along its route. The Kokura Line straddle-type monorail system is one of three urban monorail lines planned for the community of Kitakyushu. In its' current configuration, the system is approximately 5.3 miles in length and provides service to 12 stations by nine, four-car trains.

The Osaka Monorail is located in the north-east region of Osaka and links several communities. Further, it provides for easy interchange access to the North Osaka Express Electric Railway at Senri-chuo, the Hankyu Senri line, and the Hankyu Kyoto line. The system carries approximately 170 million passengers per year and transports 6% of Osaka's total travel demand traversing a total alignment distance of 8.5 miles. Service headways are 3 minutes during peak commute periods and maximum train speed is 50 MPH. The expansions include more than 15.6 miles of dual lane guideway and 11 stations. Upon planned completion in late 1998, the system will be linked with the Osaka airport.

Maglev for Cities

Although maglev has been exciting both politicians and engineers for its superior speed capabilities, there has been extensive development of medium performance maglev systems for urban rather than intercity applications. Japan Airlines (JAL) initiated the development of a Maglev transit system based upon a German concept derived in the 1930's. The HSST Development Company came into existence as the development coordinator for JAL and is still staffed with JAL engineers. Through an intense development campaign, several test vehicles emerged and have undergone extensive testing over the years (HSST-01 thru 05). The maglev vehicles have carried more than 3 million paying passengers.

The commercial derivation of these early HSST prototypes is the HSST-100 vehicle. Since 1991, the HSST-100 has successfully operated on a 4,920 ft. test line guideway in Nagoya City, Japan. At the end of 1993, the Japanese Ministry of Transport formally approved the HSST-100 system as a safe and reliable transit system applicable to all forms of public transportation utilization.

What about those Smaller Cities and Larger Activity Centers?

Have you ever wondered about those American light rail systems with a station a mile away from the airport terminal? The concept for Skyrail came into existence in 1993 to address a Japanese industry perceived transportation mode 'gap' between traditional, high capacity monorail/rubber tired people mover systems and low capacity gondola-lift type systems. In addition, the vision for Skyrail included the ability to minimize transit system development costs and land use requirements. The Skyrail design has successfully been tested at the Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan. A further .9 mile, elevated, dual lane Skyrail system is under construction in the Japanese community of Senogawa. System completion is expected in 1997.

The Skyrail concept utilizes 25 passenger, passive vehicles which are suspended from an elevated, fixed-guideway monorail steel structure. A constant velocity haul rope provides vehicle propulsion at cruise speed. However, vehicles are accelerated and decelerated independently of the haul rope by linear induction motors.

One of the principle design advantages of the Skyrail is its ability to fully operate under adverse environmental conditions. As both the guideway and vehicle bogie are rigid about the lateral axis, vehicle performance is unaffected by significant wind conditions. As a result of the guide/support wheels making contact with the guideway in the web section of the I-beam cross section support rail, vehicle performance is unaffected by snow or rain. Hence, Skyrail is the ideal all-weather feeder transport.

The Skyrail system does incorporate several Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system features, including demand responsive operation and the application of small vehicles on a dedicated guideway. Several Japanese companies have been conducting PRT development (the Computer-controlled Vehicle and MAT) which demonstrate several advanced concepts including 10 second headways, fully computerized operation, 4-6 passenger vehicles, and on-board vehicle switching.

The Guided Bus concept once popular in Europe, advances under the sponsorship of the Japanese Guideway-Bus Joint Experimental Research Association. One of the principle advantages of the guided bus is the minimal capital investment required as complex guideway structures are unnecessary. In fact, Guided Buses can operate on either exclusive guideways or ordinary streets and roads to optimize flexibility. By installing horizontal guide wheels in the front of the running wheels, any conventional transit coach can be converted to a Guided Bus.

The most advanced Accelerating Moving Walkway currently available performed beyond expectations during demonstration tests at Uminonakamichi Park, Fukuoka City. When compared with conventional AGT or rapid transit systems, the installation cost of an Accelerating Moving Walkway system is low. The design objective is to improve the mobility of short and high volume pedestrian trip applications. This goal is accomplished through accelerating passengers (pedestrians) from normal walking speed (132 ft./min.) to over 328 ft./min. in a safe and smooth manner. At the end of the walk, passengers are decelerated to normal walking speed.

We like it fast...

For several years, industry analysts and observers have eagerly observed Japan's technological advances in the area of superconducting Maglev technology which is theoretically capable of speeds in excess of 312 MPH. In fact, a super high-speed transport system with a non-adhesive drive system which is independent of wheel and rail frictional forces has been a long-standing dream of railway engineers, worldwide. In its' purest form, superconducting Maglev can be considered a combination of superconducting magnets and linear motor technologies which can ensure high-speed running, safety, reliability, low environmental impact and minimum maintenance.

Superconducting Maglev development accelerated sharply in 1990 resulting from Maglev gaining status as a nationally-funded project activity ( see Figure 4 ). Shortly thereafter, the Minister of Transport authorized the construction of the second Maglev test track, the 'Yamanashi Maglev Test Line' in the Yamanashi Prefecture. The design objective of the Yamanashi track is to further confirm Maglev's validity for practical utilization and continue testing research. Further, it is envisioned that the 11.5 mile test line will eventually form the first completed guideway segment of the planned Tokyo/Nagoya/Osaka Maglev system.

The Yamanashi Maglev Test Line is scheduled to open and begin test operations in the Spring of 1997. As planned, two trains will run at a speed of about 312 MPH and traverse a curve section (26,240 ft. min. curve radius), a steep slope section (max. gradient of 4%), a tunnel section, and a double track section (approximately 19 ft. between track centers).

From Local Invention to Overseas Implementation

Japanese companies are "smart" technology developers. They acquire and/or replicate new technologies developed by others and then upgrade them to urban standards and performance. Original designs and concepts created by North American and European companies like Lockheed, UTDC, Vought, Safege, Alweg, and others experienced their first full scale urban implementation(s) in Japan. The Japanese typically choose technologies already proven in operation but with an owner having a history of large expenditures and low return and a lack of desire or resources to continue development and marketing. For example, a moveable side guidance switch, originally derived from a U.S. People mover design, is being used for most Japanese People Movers.

The New Tram concept is entirely based on Vought design and the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport installation. There is nothing wrong with the Dallas-Fort Worth installation except terribly poor planning resulting from a confusing and ineffective layout. After years of struggle, the system now runs well, and its Japanese urban version also runs really well.

These are the lessons of long term, visionary thinking unaffected to a great extent by various political trends and cycles worldwide. The demand for a variety of transit technologies exists and with a persistent and consistent approach (and adequately upgraded technological concepts), Japanese companies will continue to succeed with the above strategic approach. It should be no surprise if the Japanese race ahead of the rest of the world in people movers and we will end up importing the technology.

Standardization Can Actually Work

Do you remember transit standardization efforts in the US in seventies? Well, it is history now. However, in Japan it is an accepted reality. The development of a standardized guideway transit design allows public/private consortia to collaborate as teams of companies in which several members offer transit technologies (complete turn key systems and/or major subsystems). Each team member supplies one or more subsystems which may vary for different projects. Such an approach permits fast-tracking of design as well as selection and integration of standardized subsystems based on price.

The majority of developed systems incorporate a significant amount of component and concept standardization. The Japanese Ministries of Construction and Transportation have developed standards for operating systems, vehicle dimensions and weight, guideway structures, and station facilities. The 'Kanazawa Seaside Line' is the first application of this standardization system.

The mature "New Transport System" supplier industry was subsequently established to take advantage of standardization and its separate subsystem procurement process as pioneered in the rail transit industry. Vehicles and primary facilities can be designed to this standard, and bids can be obtained from different organizations for the parts of the initial system and any subsequent extensions.

Public/Private: Can it really work?

Aren't we exhausted of all that talk about public/private ventures? Public/private ventures are frequently considered the "save-all" mechanism for modern infrastructure development. While the US has failed miserably to take advantage of this concept, the Japanese have fully exploited its benefits. The entire Tokyo New Waterfront Line consistent with other new transit systems in Japan, has been implemented with public/private ventures. The Waterfront system cost 170 billion yen of which 120 billion was provided by Tokyo Metropolitan Government and rest from a variety of private sources. Japanese government funding and legal policies have encouraged guideway transit installations in urban areas; typically in parallel with roadways. This results in the development of joint public/private consortia to fund, construct, and manage transit systems. Public/private consortia typically contract with teams of companies. There is a lesson to be learned.

Profitability: Inherent Assumption of Governmental Policies

The entire transportation system in Japan is solidly based on the assumption that both intercity and urban systems can be basically profitable with an understanding that time frame to achieve that goal may be much longer for smaller, less dense populated communities or major urban undertakings such as subways. Thus subsidies are granted primarily for capital rather than operational costs for carefully selected projects which would not initially 'take off' without government support. This results in comprehensive networks covering all major areas in cities. The subsidies sometimes take indirect forms. For example, the "Specific Metropolitan Railway Reserve Fund System" offers a reduction of interest rates and tax incentives. Such an approach forces private transportation industries to run their enterprises in innovative, cost-effective ways by combining transportation system operation with adjacent property development and management and other related businesses ( e.g. retail and food chains at the stations). Railway and transit infrastructure is perceived as private property in Japan, contrary to the situation in North America and Europe.

The privatization of the Japan National Railway has been monitored closely worldwide from 1987. Although selling shares to the public proved to be a slow process due to inherited debts, the bottom line is that it assured profitability. Since 1990, JR East has made a profit of about $500 million a year and reduced inherited debt without raising fares. This was possible by establishing clear responsibilities of all parties involved and numerous operational and technological improvements such as automatic train control (so feared in the United States).

The role of the Japanese government is not limited to policies and making land available to promote communities along transportation lines. It actively participates in research and development. For example, the Ministry of Transportation cooperated with the Japan Subway Association, subway companies, manufacturers, and civil engineering companies to research and commercialize linear motor driven subway cars and now is assisting in high speed maglev development. The US government approach to transportation technology development in seventies was prematurely aborted and now is ill-balanced with projects like recent suspended light rail demonstration. This project was initiated and then abandoned before anything actually was demonstrated.

American in Tokyo

The "proven in operation" requirement has almost eliminated American transit system innovation. A fear of failure has separated innovators as an unwanted nuisance. Well, now some systems are proven, but first in Japan. For example; Otis Transit Systems successfully built and has been operating a guideway transit system for the New Tokyo International Airport in Narita capable of 10,000 pphpd. Taking its strategy to the next level, Otis is resurrecting its long forgotten (in the US), Duke University LIM technology at the test track at Shibayama. The US made vehicle is ready for the acceptance by the Japanese authorities.

Forward Vision

Japanese developers have continued improving People Movers, maglev and LIM systems, accelerating moving walkways, monorails, guided buses, PRTs , and other technologies when the rest of the world put them on the margin of activities. As a result, they are a proven solution ahead. Transit policy makers and industry can no longer ignore it and continue to act as a "Dead Poet Society". Due to the conservative inertia of transit business and complexity of implementation, it takes many years to introduce a new transit approach.

The example of American automobile industry and its 'forced affair' with Japan should not be forgotten. There is room for a variety in transit technologies; not just light rail. The basic truth is that if we continue building light rail systems in the US with our current determination and at an extremely inefficient cost per captured rider, we will achieve the service level of countries like Poland or Czech Republic in 1960 over the next few decades (and only in the selected cities). Is this really what we are after?

To select the most appropriate transit technology or set of technologies, it is necessary to compare conventional systems such as light rail transit with advanced systems, such as Automated Guideway Transit , and to compare various advanced systems with one another. Although technology should not be selected merely because it exists, Japan provides true reasons to reconsider the current North American thought process. Cost competitiveness will be derived from established production techniques and volumes for a variety of projects and wide standardization of products. The choice is ours.

Andrew S. Jakes is the President of Jakes Associates, Inc.; an international strategic planning firm. He can be contacted at Jakes Associates, Inc., 1940 The Alameda, Suite 200, San Jose, CA 95126-1427, (408) 249-7200, (408) 249-7296 (fax), (e-mail) or visit his website:

For additional information on Japanese transit systems, see the Innovative Transportation Technologies website.


Last modified: December 4, 1997