Travel

Even faster bullet trains and robot baristas are waiting for us when we return to Japan

JR East Alfa-X experimental Shinkansen train with extended nose

It’s been some time since holiday makers were allowed into Japan, but when we finally return expect to see some big changes, particularly on Japan’s rail network, where robots are moving centre stage, and new, even faster Shinkansen trains are waiting in the wings.

JR East, which runs a Shinkansen network in the Tohoku Region, reports that the near future will see metropolitan train stations widely staffed by robots.

As part of a major project to transform Tokyo’s Shinagawa area into a leading-edge transportation hub, the company is using the newly opened Takanawa Gateway Station to trial advanced robots and AI; it hopes to shine a light on how new technologies can be part of the everyday passenger experience. 

Takanawa Gateway Station service robot
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The plan is that Takanawa Gateway Station will eventually employ a special crew of advanced ‘bots, to provide travellers with transfer information, act as security guards, carry heavy luggage, serve food, and even clean the station facilities and equipment.

The robot workforce were trialled in 2020, and July 2021 got the green light for fulltime employment in the station. The operator says it intends to continue to innovate in Shinagawa by extending the use of the robots to the area surrounding the station in the near future. 

Takanawa Gateway Station will continue to act as a test ground for innovative AI technology.

A special crew of advanced robots will provide travellers with transfer information, act as security guards, carry heavy luggage, serve food, and even clean the station facilities…

Ella the robot barista serves a cup of coffee
Robots are on the rise in Japan’s service industries

Returning vacationers should also look out for robot baristas while they await their train.

JR East has begun collaborating with start-up companies to drive such initiatives to enhance customer experiences.

Ella, developed by Singapore start-up Crown Technologies, now serves contactless barista-made coffee in Tokyo and Yokohama stations. With Ella, customers order their coffee through an app, and pay by card. Ella is expected to be the first of many contact-less services debuting in high traffic stations.  

Ella the Robot barista unit at Tokyo station
Ella the robot barista can be found in Tokyo and Yokohama stations

Shinkansen enthusiasts can look forward to the ALFA-X (Advanced Labs for Frontline Activity in rail eXperimentation) E956 series train. This Shinkansen is still in the prototype phase, but points to a new era for the iconic train. 

The ALFA-X will be the fastest Shinkansen in operation. Able to travel up to 400 km/h (250 mph), it’s built from ultra-light composite materials and has a unique design, with two differently-shaped noses on each end, one a record-breaking 22 metres long. 

The extreme length helps reduce pressure and noise when entering tunnels at high speeds. The train also introduces features that help to suppress up-down vibrations, using a novel tremble protection control device, as well as sideways motion, making the onboard experience as comfortable as possible. With passengers, it’ll travel up to 360 km/h (224mph), and when it begins operations will sport a highly reflective metallic colour scheme.

The second new addition to JR East’s train fleet is the E8 series. This new rolling stock Shinkansen, made for use on the Yamagata Shinkansen line, will replace the current E3 Shinkansen and begins operating spring 2024.

Finally, rail operator JR Kyushu also has a new bullet train arriving. Scheduled to go into service in the autumn of 2022, the Kamome Shinkansen train is a next-generation N700S series, with six cars. It’s a variation of the JR central Shinkansen trains, and can transport 396 travellers. Kamome, meaning Seagull, hints at the livery.  

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About Steve May

Creator of Home Cinema Choice magazine, and editor of The Luxe Review, Steve muses and reviews for Trusted Reviews, T3, Yahoo UK, Home Cinema Choice, Games Radar, Ideal Home, Louder Sounds, Channel News and Boat International. He’s also the editor of professional home cinema website Inside CI. He's on Twitter and Instagram as @SteveMay_UK

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