Hokkaido Railway Co. recently unveiled its prototype Dual-Mode Vehicle, a minibus with retractable train wheels for use on tracks.

The carrier plans to put such vehicles into practical use in about three years as part of efforts to lower the operating costs of branch lines, JR Hokkaido officials said.

The railroad's track maintenance vehicles already are capable of being driven both on roads and railroads, but its dual-use minibus is being touted as a first for passenger service.

The test model is the fruit of a 75 million yen JR Hokkaido development project that started in 2000. The 25-seat microbus boasts four highway wheels for roads and four steel train wheels plus two rubber tires for tracks, the officials said.

The vehicle can be switched from rail to highway mode in 10 to 15 seconds and can zip along at 60 kph.

JR Hokkaido not only hopes to operate the vehicles in both modes but to also cut the cost of mass producing them by 90 percent as it uses bus parts.

The railroad is also currently developing a branch-line traffic control system that utilizes GPS. It will eliminate the need for trackside signals and radically reduce operating costs.