After 150 years of service Japan’s rail system is leading the industry’s modal shift push

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2022 marks the 150th anniversary of Japan's railway system, which began service between Shimbashi and Yokohama in 1872. How can the country’s rail network and its progress over the years inspire the development of sustainable railway systems worldwide?

After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, 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 totaled 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.

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.

Reducing emissions through modal shift

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 (26 cars) 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.

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 shifted 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 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, 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 can travel up to 140 km on a single fill of high-pressure hydrogen. Driving tests have already been conducted and the company is aiming for commercialization 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 maximize the benefits of this modal shift, the decarbonization 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.

*A version of this article was first published by the World Economic Forum here.