|

Maglev veteran keeps looking toward the future

Chunichi Shimbun

The route for the Linear Chuo Shinkansen between Tokyo and Nagoya has been announced, and the country’s first magnetically levitated train is moving toward the start of operations in 2027.

Junji Fujie, a former chief engineer on the project team at the Railway Technical Research Institute, is looking forward to seeing the maglev in operation. He had been involved in the project since the initial stages of development but resigned after an accident during one of the test runs.

“I feel like our dream is finally going to come true,” said the 75-year-old resident of Hino, Tokyo.

Fujie joined the old Japanese National Railways in 1962, two years before the Tokaido Shinkansen Line was launched. That same year the institute, which was under the JNR umbrella, began research on maglev trains to develop the next generation of high-speed rail. The goal was to reach 500 kph.

Fujie was transferred to the research institute in 1967 because of his expertise in electricity and he was assigned to the maglev team.

During a test in October 1972, the ML100 research train achieved levitation at 60 kph for the first time. Although his superiors prohibited riding the test train, Fujie sneaked aboard with a colleague during one of its final tests the following year.

“It ran so smoothly that I couldn’t even tell when the train had started levitating. It felt great to be on that train,” he recalled with a mischievous smile.

He was also witness to a historic event. In December 1979, during a test on the Miyazaki maglev test track in Hyuga, Miyazaki Prefecture, the ML500 research vehicle passed its intended mark of 500 kph, hitting 504 kph.

Nine days later, the speed was boosted to 517 kph, setting a new Guinness world record.

“I felt immense relief when I saw the train hit 500 kph from the operations center. I can still remember the taste of the ‘shochu’ from that night,” the engineer said.

However, the news turned sour in October 1991 when Fujie got a call from the test track.

“There’s smoke coming from the train car,” a staff member reported.

One of the rubber tires that the train rolls on at low speed was punctured and started burning from the friction. Oil from the hydraulic machinery caused the fire to spread until the entire car was engulfed in flames.

“A levitating train catching fire was the last thing we expected,” Fujie explained.

The Yamanashi Maglev Test Line was being constructed at that time and Fujie did not want the fire to cause any delays to the maglev dream. He decided to resign to take responsibility for the accident so the project could keep moving forward.

Since then, all Japanese maglev train cars had been fitted with nonflammable materials and oil, increasing the general safety of operations.

After retiring from the institute, Fujie continued to follow developments as he worked for a private company that deals with electrical systems for maglev trains.

Meanwhile, Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai) continued to conduct tests at the Yamanashi Maglev Test Line to perfect the technology, which led to the railway’s announcement Sept. 18 that it had picked the route that will link Tokyo and Nagoya.

“JR Tokai spent years improving the technology, which is commendable. I hope the technology can spread to the rest of the world,” Fujie said.

“I’ll be 89 years old when the maglev train begins operations. I’ll do whatever it takes to stay alive until then,” he added with a smile.

This section, appearing Saturdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published Sept.19.