Automatically operated shinkansen bullet trains could be right around the bend.

Central Japan Railway Co. and East Japan Railway Co. aim to commercialize driverless systems around 2028 for the Tokaido Shinkansen and the mid-2030s for the Joetsu Shinkansen, respectively.

But as testing of the systems progresses, the differing goals of the two JR companies have become apparent, reflecting the characteristics of the route and the level of cost-cutting targeted.

In the early morning on May 11, a test train on the Tokaido Shinkansen Line equipped with an automatic train operating system, or ATO, departed from Hamamatsu Station in Shizuoka Prefecture, central Japan.

Photo shows a Tokaido Shinkansen train arriving at Shizuoka Station after running an automatic operation test trial in May 2023. (Kyodo)

The train accelerated when the driver pushed a green button, then automatically decelerated and re-accelerated in response to sudden instructions and later stopped at Shizuoka Station. There was a deviation of 9 millimeters (0.35 inches) in the stop position and an arrival time error of 2 seconds.

The trial was hailed "a major success" by JR Central officials.

The main challenges for the ATO being developed by JR Central are sticking to standard departure, transit, and arrival times set in 15-second increments at each station and improving passenger comfort and energy-saving operation by adjusting for the number of acceleration/deceleration cycles and speed fluctuations.

The semi-automatic system includes an advanced feature that allows the train to run at higher speeds than usual until it reaches a slowdown section -- established in the event of bad weather along the route or for other reasons -- to compensate for the delay caused by a projected slowdown.

JR Central has targeted Grade 2 automation in light of the classification recognized by international organizations, which calls for an operator to always be in the driver's seat. Grade 2 automatic train operation has already been introduced by the Tokyo Metro subway system and other firms and is not a new form of operation.

For now, the company has no intention of aiming for a higher automation grade. Of the five degrees of automation, Grade 4, in which a train is automatically controlled without staff on board, is the highest. The Yurikamome line, Tokyo's first fully automated transit system connecting Shimbashi to Toyosu via the artificial island of Odaiba, runs without staff on board.

"We need a driver to communicate with the command center and to respond to emergencies," a JR Central official said.

A JR Central employee explains the automatic driving system based on a live video feed of the driver's seat, taken inside a Tokaido Shinkansen train in May 2023. (Kyodo)

Meanwhile, JR East is aiming to introduce Grade 3 automation on the Joetsu Shinkansen, which will allow operation by train attendants who need not be qualified as drivers. The train still needs a crew member on board to operate.

It also plans to extend the system to the Hokuriku Shinkansen, running on the Sea of Japan side of central Japan.

"This will reduce the cost of driver training. Grade 2 requires the operator to be in the driver's seat at all times, even during automatic driving, which makes work conditions harder," said a JR East official. The company has been carrying out tests since October 2021.

Ryo Takagi, a professor of railroad engineering at Kogakuin University in Tokyo, pointed out that "Grades 2 and 3 are not so different in terms of the performance of the ATO."

But Takagi speculates that "JR Central probably does not see much significance in trying to reduce the number of its drivers" as the Tokaido Shinkansen Line carries a considerable volume of passengers, making it sometimes necessary for them to respond quickly when an abnormality is found or the timetable is disrupted.

As far as automation is concerned, he added, "I hope that it will be introduced as a technology to reduce the stress of work, not to use train attendants as cheap labor."