Japan Tests New 311 MPH Maglev Train

A new maglev train purported to reach speeds of 311 mph was tested for the first time on the Yamanashi test track in Japan this week. When put into service in 2027, the high-speed, magnetically levitated train will connect Tokyo with Nagoya, reducing the travel time from the current hour and a half down to only 40 minutes.

While China currently holds the speed title for in-service commercial trains with its airport-to-city maglev in Shanghai, Japan has long been the global leader in high-speed rail. Its famous Shinkansen bullet train network debuted way back in 1964.

With this new train, the L0, Japan will almost certainly reclaim the “world’s fastest” title. However, the Chinese have claimed they have a train in development that will zip along at over 600 mph.

In any case, the L0 will carry up to 1,000 passengers at a time. And in just over 30 years, Japan will have extended the line to Osaka, 300 miles from Tokyo. The government plans to eventually expand the network around the entire country.

Floating trains zipping around the country at almost half the speed of sound; we, or at least the Japanese, are living in the future.

Travel Smarter 2012: Tips for improving your train travel

The railroad is the oldest, commercial mass transport of the modern age, predating the car and the airplane by at least 100 years. So how can train travel be smarter in 2012?

For starters, “the train takes less time total than all the preliminaries of air travel,” says Margaret King, who regularly opts to take the train to New York City, DC, and Boston from her home in Philadelphia. “I can take plenty of luggage, with no extra fees; I can easily work aboard the train; [and there are] no security hassles.”

From smartphone apps to help you plan and book your travel to a new crop of high-speed trains, train services across the globe have upgraded to appeal to frustrated air travelers and entice would-be drivers from their cars. Let’s take a look at all the ways traveling by train is smarter in 2012.

Smartphone Apps
Name any national railway and there’s likely an app that helps you find train schedules, get arrival and departure updates, and book seats. If you’re traveling to Europe, you can download apps for the particularly country you may be visiting or get the free Rail Europe app. Though far from perfect (e.g., tickets purchased through the app are sent via email as an e-ticket or, given enough lead time, mailed, rather than existing digitally within the app itself), the Rail Europe app gives you information on timetables, stations, and more for 35 European countries. Amtrak has a similar app (also free) that includes a panel for Guest Rewards, a loyalty program that lets regular rail travelers earn points towards free trips. Round-the-world trekkers, particularly those that intend to city-hop, would do well to download AllSubway HD ($0.99), a database of more than 130 city subway maps.Improved Rail Travel Using Social Media and the Web
Twitter is the social media platform of choice for travelers who need quick answers on rail information, particularly interruptions in service on municipal rail lines. Transitpal, a service available to riders of the Caltrain in the San Francisco Bay Area, monitors tweets to determine delays, police activity, and schedule changes. A companion app to the Transitpal service is set to launch in spring 2012 and the concept, says developer and Google alum Frederick Vallaeys, could easily be applied to rail lines in other cities.

As for using the web to improve the rail travel experience, look to Hipmunk, which became in fall 2011 the first online travel agent to integrate Amtrak searches. Hipmunk now displays train schedules and fares alongside airline timetables and fares, giving passengers, particularly those on the East Coast, where Amtrak service is strong, “greater flexibility and pricing power when considering routes.” Sadly, Amtrak fares are not included in Hipmunk’s smartphone app.

High-Speed Rail and Express Trains
Investing in high-speed rail infrastructure has become a priority on the local, state, regional, and federal level as they see that more consumers are willing to pay a bit extra for faster connections. Countries currently at work on high-speed rail networks include Turkey, China, Italy, and Russia. China’s newest express line, which connects Beijing to Shanghai in just over five hours, opened in June 2011. NTV, the first private bullet train operator in Italy, is set to begin service of its Italo fast trains in spring 2012. A point of interest: the private, high-speed rail line has the backing of Italian leather goods mogul Diego delle Valle, among other investors, and a 20 percent stake by SNCF, the French National Rail Service.

Russia has two relatively new high-speed trains between Moscow and St. Petersburg and St. Petersburg and Helsinki, Finland, but Russian Railways is currently at work on a line that will connect Moscow with Sochi, the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Turkey’s famous Haydarpaşa Train Station, the terminus on the Asian side of Istanbul closed in January 2012 for restoration so that Turkish State Railways (TCDD) could complete its construction of the high-speed link between Ankara, the capital, and Istanbul, as well as the Marmaray Tunnel, a controversial and ambitious project that will create an underground rail link between Europe and Asia by digging a tunnel below the Bosphorus.

On-Board Amenities
In a bid to compete with and outdo airlines and bus companies, railways have been upgrading on-board amenities, such as offering Wi-Fi and unique dining menus. Amtrak launched free Wi-Fi on 12 East Coast routes and three California routes in fall 2011, thereby bringing the percentage of Wi-Fi-equipped fleet to 75 percent. (Note: Hipmunk, mentioned above, automatically provides info on Wi-Fi trains in its search.)

Meanwhile, rail passengers on board the Canadian, the VIA Rail train that connects Toronto to Vancouver, can look forward to a revamped dining menu. VIA recently enlisted the talents of eight chefs in a Top Chef-style cook-off. The 2012 Menu Creation Challenge saw the chefs create 72 gourmet dishes for menu consideration.

[flickr image via krikit]

Crossing Japan in a day with National Geographic’s Digital Nomad

With its unique culture, diverse landscapes, and rich history, Japan has long been a popular destination for travelers visiting Asia. The country offers everything from sprawling high tech cities to beautiful countrysides, and is as captivating for its food and art, as it is for its people. National Geographic’s Digital Nomad Andrew Evans has been traveling through Japan for several weeks now, posting on everything from the country’s love for baseball to the therapeutic experience that comes with a “sand bath.”

One of the more interesting aspects of traveling through Japan is the bullet train, so named because of their distinctive shapes and the fact that they routinely hit speeds in excess of 150 mph. The trains are well known for being safe, efficient, and on time, making them a popular way to get around the country. Recently, Andrew, who has written for Gadling on numerous occasions, wanted to see if he could cross the length of the country by train in a single day – a journey of more than 1200 miles. The result is the video below, which gives us a glimpse of the urban landscapes that dot Japan, while providing insights into what its like to travel on their famous trainssushi box and all.

Big in Japan: Bullet train set to beat domestic rail speed record

With the possible exception of the perfectly conical Mt. Fuji and the humble cherry blossom, there is perhaps no greater symbol of Japan than the shinkansen (新幹線) or bullet train. Racing across the archipelago at veritable race car speeds, the bullet train is the technological manifestation of performance, precision and elegance.

The statistics behind the bullet train are certainly impressive.

First debuting in 1964, the bullet train now runs along more than 1,500 miles of high-speed track. The rail system connects most major cities on the islands of Honshu and Kyushu, with planned extensions to Hokkaido starting in 2015.

Although world-speed records for conventional rail belong to the French TGV and the Chinese CRH, the Shinkansen is anything but a slow workhorse. The Nozomi superexpress, which runs between Tokyo and Hakata, reaches speeds of up to 180 mph. But there is a new bullet train in town that is about to change everything.

On that note, allow me to introduce you to the Hayabusa (はやぶさ) or Peregrine Falcon.This past weekend, Japan’s first new high-speed train in 14 years departed Tokyo station en route to the northern reaches of Honshu. Sporting a slick paint job of green, pink and silver, the Hayabusa will carry passengers up to Shin-Aomori at speeds of 180 mph.

By 2012 however, this upper limit will be raised to 198 mph, breaking the current domestic speed record for conventional rail travel. This is not to be confused with the newer maglev technology, which can reach an astonishing 361 mph.

Beyond standard and slightly more spacious ‘Green Car’ seats, the Hayabusa is also equipped with a brand new ‘Gran Class’ car. As a throwback to the grand old days of rail travel, Gran Class passengers can enjoy reclining leather seats, free alcoholic drinks and limited-edition bento box lunches.

One-way normal fare to Aomori costs ¥16,870 ($205), while Green Car and Gran Class seats cost ¥21,360 ($260) and ¥26,360 ($320), respectively. If you’re planning on splurging for Gran Class, book well in advance as they’re a hot commodity right now amongst Japanese rail enthusiasts.

Aomori itself is a rather non-descript industrial city with a few decent art museums and a famous morning market. But the surrounding countryside is home to world-class ski slopes, secluded onsen (hot springs) resorts and some of Japan’s best sake.

What are you waiting for? Spring is just around the corner, so layer up and head north into Japan’s famous snow country before it’s too late.

** All images are courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons Project **

Are the trains in Spain faster than the planes?

If you’ve ever had a chance to travel around Europe, you’re probably familiar with its various high-speed rail networks. In France, the TGV and AGV lines whisk passengers between Paris and points beyond including Brussels and Lyon at speeds over 200 miles per hour. And in Spain, the AVE rail system connects Madrid to Seville and as of 2008, to Barcelona as well.

According to a recent post at Wired, the new high speed link between Spain’s two biggest cities has had a dramatic effect on the country’s transportation network. In 2007, the airline route between Madrid and Barcelona was the busiest in the world, carrying over 70 percent of the passengers traveling between the two. Yet upon the opening of the new Barcelona rail line last year, that percentage has already dropped to 60 percent, and experts predict the number of plane and train passengers on the route will be equal within the next 2 years.

Aside from the obvious environmental benefits of traveling by rail instead of air, there’s a significant convenience advantage as well. As heavy airplane traffic continues to choke airport runways worldwide, it’s likely many of us will be turning to the railways for trips shorter than three hours. And when you think about it, by the time you’ve made it through TSA clearance, located your gate and fought for an overhead bin spot, your quick two hour plane trip has often turned into four or five. Here’s hoping the U.S. continues to look into similar high-speed rail solutions like Acela. It’s no AVE yet, but certainly a good first step.

[Via PSFK]