Since the railway system made its debut in Europe in the former half of the 19th century, 200 years will soon have passed. During the initial 100-year period, the railway system had maintained an overwhelmingly superior position as a barometer or missionary of civilization to elude other transport facilities. During the other 100-year period that followed, however, railways have been in severe competition with airlines, ships and cars from the viewpoint of high speed, mass transport and convenience, respectively.
The latter half of the 20th century saw the advent of high speed trains that run at 200 km/h or over in Japan and developed countries in Europe. In the 21st century, railways raised the service speed to 300 km/h to rally and acquire prosperity by their stable, convenient and high-speed passenger transport. As an outcome of the integrated efforts of railway engineers and researchers, France, Germany and Japan recorded high speed operation at 400 to 500 km/h with test cars around 1990. This was an epock-making event to upset the conventional common sense for the limit of train speed.
After that, construction of high speed railways and development of high speed rolling stock have spread in France, Germany, Spain, Sweden and other countries in Europe, North America and East Asia (Korea, Taiwan and China). It is no exaggeration to say that the present development and prosperity of railways have been brought about by high speed operation and related researches. Researches on high speed operation are not only for competition in speed, but also to substantially enhance key technologies in various fields, such as those for the improvement of safety and reliability, reduction of costs and preservation of the environment.
From the global viewpoint, the role of mass transport and distribution by freight trains is emphasized more than that of high speed passenger transport and urban commuter and student transport. In contrast, automobiles and ships mainly undertake mass transport and distribution in Japan, while railways concentrate on high density mass passenger transport in urban areas and high speed passenger transport through the Shinkansen network. From the viewpoint of the preservation of the global environment, however, a modal shift, or increasing freight transport through the railway network, is also advocated in Japan.
Under the circumstances, diversified subjects of research and development are seen in the railway industry in Japan. It is required to promote research and development in wide ranges to improve safety and reliability and further decrease operation costs in order to support the foundation of stable railway management, improve convenience and comfort for better passenger services and preserve the global and wayside environment. In a sense, however, central themes haven't been marked out. In Japan, the movement to raise the speed of Shinkansen and narrow-gauge lines haven't been active for several years. It will take some time more to commercialize the gauge-changeable train and the magnetic levitation railway system that are now under development.
To vitalize the research and development on railways, it is the most appropriate to adopt the theme of speedup. Spain and Korea reportedly have plans to increase the commercial speed to 350 km/h. A movement is seen in Japan as well to aim at a similar speed range. Research and development on speedup provide a subject to encourage railway researchers and engineers and raise their morale. There are a number of problems that are difficult to solve, including those related to preservation of the wayside environment and technologies for stable running of rolling stock. The author believes that tackling the subject of high speed operation will improve the technical level in various fields. It is high time now to start a new challenge.