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Global push for Japanese high speed rail standards

A new international forum is to lead efforts to drive higher safety standards into high speed railways across the world.

From early next year the International High Speed Rail Association will aim to combat high profile rail disasters by persuading global railway infrastructure owners and operators to implement higher standards.

In July a catastrophic rail crash at Santiago de Compostela in Spain killed 79 people.

The accident occurred on a section of the track at the interface between two rail safety systems – the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) and Spain’s ASFA system, which is used on lower speed sections of the Spanish network. ERTMS forces trains to brake if they are travelling above predefined safety speeds.

The new association is being established by Central Japan Railway Company senior advisor Torkel Patterson and will focus on promoting the adoption of a performance-based, crash avoidance, high speed rail system.

This is a set of standards that have been in use on Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train system. They are characterised by the use of dedicated tracks exclusively for passenger services and a “fail safe” and “completely reliable” automatic train control system, Patterson told a rail conference at the Japanese Embassy in London last week.

There have been zero fatalities or injuries to passengers on Japanese high speed rail lines since their inception in 1964.

“These numbers really are achievable,” said Patterson. “You really can have 100% safety and almost complete reliability.”

“There are a lot of advantages [to this set of standards] but they are undersold,” Patterson told NCE. “Even on greenfield [high speed rail] developments.

Patterson said that there were three approaches to high speed rail standards:

  • Crashworthiness standards as recommended for the adoption of high speed rail in the US and which assume up to 354km/h high speed rail trains operating on both dedicated and conventional freight lines
  • In Europe the Technical Specification for Interoperability which also caters for building a high speed railway to operate alongside existing infrastructure
  • The crash avoidance system used in Japan, which has become synonymous with safety

Transport minister Stephen Hammond told delegates that the Shinkansen’s “unblemished safety record is something all countries aspire to”.

The International High Speed Rail Association will be formed by a senior advisory board and a committee of technical advisors.

High Speed 2 Ltd technical director Andrew McNaughton told NCE he was keen to work closely with such an association.

“High speed rail is a world-wide club. We’re in that club and we’re open to learning from everyone,” he said.

Patterson said that while it was difficult to make the commitment to such dedicated high speed standards, developers must consider striving for them.

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