What does the future hold for Japan's railways after 150 years of service?

This image shows a train crossing a railway bridge in Japan to illustrate Japan's railways powering into the future

Japan's railways are powering into the future Image: Unsplash/M.S. Meeuwesen

Naoko Kutty
Writer, Forum Agenda
Naoko Tochibayashi
Communications Lead, Japan, World Economic Forum
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  • Japan's railways are celebrating 150 years of service.
  • Japan's railways are one of Japan's most eco-friendly modes of transport.
  • Japan's advanced railway technology and knowledge may now drive the development of sustainable railway systems worldwide.

2022 marks the 150th anniversary of Japan's railway system, which began service between Shimbashi and Yokohama in 1872. After the Meiji Restoration, Japan urgently needed to establish a transportation network to transform the country into a modern nation. The development of railways that could carry more people and goods, faster, and farther, was of great significance. Since Japan did not have railway technology at that time, Edmund Morrell and other British engineers took the lead in the construction of Japan's railways. Their contributions led to the creation of a government-owned railway in Japan just five years after the Meiji Restoration. Since then, railways have influenced and changed the lives of the Japanese people in many ways.

Railways are an eco-friendly transport

Among various transportation infrastructures, the railway network, with its efficient transportation, strongly supported Japan's economic development. And, because railways have overwhelmingly high kinetic energy efficiency, they have extremely low environmental impact compared to automobiles.

In 2019, Japan's CO2 emissions totalled 1.108 billion tons. Of that, the transportation sector contributed 206 million tons of CO2 emissions, accounting for 18.6% of all emissions nationwide. Breaking down the transportation sector emissions, 86.1% come from all vehicles, 5.1% from aviation, 5.0% from coastal shipping and only 3.8% from railways.

Trends in CO2 emissions by the transportation sector in Japan (2019) Image: Foundation for Promoting Personal Mobility and Ecological Transportation

In 2019, looking at the amount of CO2 emitted when transporting one human being 1 km, passenger cars (130g) emitted the most CO2, followed by aeroplanes (98g), buses (57g) and railways (17g). This indicates that railways are the most environmentally friendly mode of transportation.

CO2 emission rates by passenger transport mode (2019) Image: Foundation for Promoting Personal Mobility and Ecological Transportation

Reducing emissions through modal shift

As transportation volumes increase, so do CO2 emissions and transportation volumes are highly dependent on economic trends and conditions. It is important, therefore, to promote efficient transportation to reliably reduce emissions regardless of increases or decreases in transportation volumes, which are difficult to predict.

Since the 1990s, when environmentally conscious initiatives began to be demanded, new ways of thinking about logistics with an eye on the future of the global environment have been attracting attention. One of these is the modal shift in transportation — a move away from less environmentally-sustainable modes of transportation, such as cars and trucks, toward more sustainable modes, such as railways and waterways. According to JR Freight, one freight train (26cars) is equivalent to 65 10-ton trucks, indicating that railways, which can carry large volumes of goods at a time, have extremely high transportation efficiency.

One famous example is the TOYOTA LONGPASS EXPRESS. This freight train, which runs approximately 900 km between Nagoya and Morioka, is owned by Toyota and carries car parts manufactured at its plant in Aichi Prefecture to its plant in Iwate Prefecture. The company claims that the switch from truck to rail transportation has made it possible to transport 40 10-ton truckloads at once.

Railway companies tracking Net Zero

Even though the shift from road to rail transportation helps to reduce emissions, the key to achieving zero carbon emissions from railways lies in the efforts of railway companies. This is because no matter how low the environmental impact of railways is, 90% of their emissions come from electricity, much of which is dependent on thermal power.

Have you read?

Tokyu Railways make all trains 100% renewable

In 2019, Tokyu Railways became the first Japanese rail business to join RE100, a global green energy initiative that brings together hundreds of businesses committed to powering 100% of their operations using renewable energy. In the same year, Tokyu Railways sifted its Setagaya tram line, running in the eastern part of Tokyo, to 100% renewable energy. And, in April of 2022, the company became the first in Japan to switch all of its rail lines (7 lines) and stations throughout the Tokyo metropolitan area to 100% renewable energy sources, including solar, wind, geothermal and hydroelectric power. Tokyu’s ambitious action is expected to reduce CO2 emissions equivalent to the average annual emissions of 56,000 households.

JR East’s hydrogen-powered train

Japan's largest railway company, East Japan Railway (JR East), is also promoting pioneering efforts. One such initiative is the HYBARI hydrogen-hybrid train, the first of its kind in Japan, which is being developed to achieve virtually zero emissions by 2050. Developed by JR East in collaboration with the Toyota Motor Corporation and Hitachi Ltd., combining their respective railroad and automobile technologies, the train’s main power source is electricity from the fuel cell, which uses hydrogen as its energy source, and from the battery. According to JR East, the train has a maximum speed of 100km/h and is capable of travelling up to 140 km on a single fill of high-pressure hydrogen. Driving tests have already been conducted and the company is aiming for commercialisation in 2030.

Decarbonizing railways

As one of the transport modes with the potential to become the backbone of any future sustainable transport system, railways are essential for a sustainable modal shift away from road transport. To maximise the benefits of this modal shift, the decarbonisation of railways is key and railways companies will play a pivotal role.

Japan's advanced railway technology and knowledge, cultivated over 150 years of history, should now be able to drive the development of sustainable railway systems worldwide. What we must not forget is that each of us can encourage this development by including CO2 emissions as one of the criteria for the modes of transportation we choose in our daily lives.

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