NIPPONIA No. 43 December 15, 2007


Living in Japan

Exploring the Future of Rail Transport

Chen Hua and Jin Ying

Written by Takahashi Hidemine   Photos by Akagi Koichi


Chen Hua (left) and Jin Ying verifying results of rail wear tests on the test track.

In front of the institute’s housing. Their children attend the local public elementary school.

A test vehicle glides by on the rails at the Railway Technical Research Institute in Kokubunji, Tokyo. The track is 740 meters long, and the institute’s land has plenty of space to explore various aspects of rail transportation, from the latest railcar technology and information systems to passenger psychology. The institute is the only place in Japan for such comprehensive rail-related research.

Chen Hua and Jin Ying specialize in train-track dynamics here. They are from China and came to Japan to study at the graduate level at a public university, after graduating from universities in China. They work not as trainees or apprentices but as research staff members playing a vital role in the institute’s projects.

Their research into rail dynamics focuses on what exactly happens where iron wheels touch iron rails. For example, they study wheel slippage at high speeds, and the effect of different frictional forces. As another example, they examine ways to reduce rail wear and tear. Whatever the project, they first use a computer to come up with statistical estimates, then verify their findings with an indoor simulator. Dressed in work uniforms, they try out different concepts until they have data accurate enough to be useful to the railway industry. “The institute has advanced facilities, so it’s possible to do all that, and more,” the two agree.

Chen (at left in photo above) says, “The Japanese tackle each research project with a team that examines one question and comes up with the answer. Each researcher brings his or her own expertise to the group and combines it with the expertise of others. It’s a great system.”

Now 45, Chen once specialized in the design and manufacture of rockets in China. But she was keen to work in a research center that stands at the forefront of the global railway industry, and wanted to experience its unique research system and environment. That is why she switched to the railway sector.

Jin (at right in the same photo) once specialized in materials, mainly metals and ceramics. She is now 44. “In Japan, there are common manufacturing standards, whether for materials or components or finished products. So the results of our institute’s research can be shared with many types of railway companies. What we do here ends up being useful to many people. When I think of that, I find my work really fulfilling.”

How about Japan as a place to live? “I feel completely free here,” says Chen. Jin chimes in: “Japan’s the best place to make a living!”

They both live just a minute away on foot from the institute, in company housing with their husbands from China and children. Their work schedule offers flextime, making it easier to juggle the duties of holding down a job, looking after a home and raising children. “Our living conditions are ideal in many ways, so we can concentrate on research without worrying about family situations,” explains Chen.

Jin, standing beside her, nods. “Japanese people are really kind and polite. For example, you’re sure to hear helpful announcements at airports and stations, and on trains they announce the destination and where to change trains. If you’re not sure how to get to your destination, just ask a station attendant. When I arrive at Tokyo’s Narita Airport I’m greeted with a ‘Welcome home!’ which makes me relax after a long trip,” she grins.

Jin says shopping by phone is one of the things she likes best about Japan. “All I have to do is pick up the phone and I can get all kinds of things delivered to my door, from food to clothes. That’s a big help for someone like me, who has to balance housework with work outside the home.”

One of the institute’s R&D targets is improving safety and riding comfort, and they see the results in their work and experience every day. Says Jin, “Japanese railways place priority on maintenance and inspections. Passengers put their lives in their hands, so it’s natural that safety is number one. Hopefully, railways throughout the world have the same philosophy.”

Their research is opening the door to future advances in rail transport in Japan and other parts of the world.

Beside a linear motor car used for experimental runs on another test track owned by the institute in Yamanashi Prefecture. Linear motor propulsion is getting plenty of attention worldwide as a next-generation rail system offering a super-fast, eco-friendly means of transportation.