But fast trains are not just limited to Japan. Countries such as France, Spain, Germany, and Hungary are all in on the act. Even the UK already has it's own version of the bullet trains running - known as the Javelin Train (by its association with the London Olympics of 2012), or as the Class-395 on its HS1 scheduled services from London St Pancras to Kent and the UK side of the Channel Tunnel.
After the success of the Javelin Train, all eyes have turned to the next evolution of high speed rail travel in the UK - the UK Bullet Train. The overall project is known as the Intercity Express Project or IEP. Virgin have named their East Coast fleet the Azuma.
In a world in which getting from A to B in as quick a time and at as reasonable a price as possible has become the holy grail for many of the UK's train travelers, the introduction of the IEP train promises speedy, futuristic rail travel on selected UK routes.
One thing is for sure, the trains will need to be modern, energy efficient, reliable, and environmentally friendly. That's the plan, and with Hitachi in the driving seat there's a strong chance that rail travellers will experience the fruits of that promise.
30th June 2016 - First GWR IEP officially unveiled and runs on first trip from Reading to London Paddington
4th May 2016 - First GWR IEP Intercity Express named after the designer of the Intercity 125 - Sir Kenneth Grange.
28th March 2016 - Virgin name their IEP fleet as Azuma trains, named after the Japanese for 'East'.
What Is The IEP?
The new IEP trains will replace the ageing but highly successful Intercity 125 fleet, giving UK rail commuters the chance to experience rail speeds of around 130 mph. The Department of Transport in the UK needed to find a suitable Intercity 125 replacement, and awarded the contract for supply of the trains to Hitachi Rail. Hitach have a tough act to follow - the Intercity 125 fleet was capable of cruising at speeds of 125 mph and with a 145 mph top speed and were hailed worldwide in the day as an engineering feat Britain could be proud of.
The Intercity 125 fleet was first introduced in 1976, so as you can expect, now is the time for this fleet to be upgraded with new, faster, more efficient rail stock: thus the task of the Intercity Express Program.
The Intercity 125 fleet will be replaced by the IEP on the two lines regarded as the busiest and longest in Britain:
The Great Western Main Line managed by First Great Western, which runs out from London’s super hub of Paddington and branches out to Bristol and Cardiff in South Wales via Reading, Oxford, and Swindon, and the North and South Cotswolds. Major towns such as Newbury and Swansea are also covered. The first trains of a 57 vehicle contract are expected to be running in summer 2017.
The East Coast Main Line, which runs out of King’s Cross (a newly refurbished and rebuilt super hub in north central London) and runs up through towns and cities like Stevenage, Peterborough, York, Wakefield, Westgate Newcastle, and Edinburgh. Trains - known as Azumas - are planned for introduction in 2018. Virgin Trains took over management of East Coast services on 1st March 2015.
The program will also replace a number of other train set routes including those long distance routes from London to Cambridge (out of King’s Cross), London Euston to Oxford, London Paddington to Weston Super Mare and London Kings Cross to Kingston Upon Hull.
Full details of routes can be found on the IEP routes page here on IEPTrain.uk nearer the time of introduction, and you'll also find a page dedicated to finding the best deals on tickets.
It's early days to be talking about timetables on the IEP routes. Current timetables will clearly change depending on frequency and carriage confirmation of the new trains. Nearer the time of service introduction you'll find detailed info on the IEP timetables page.
Don't expect vast differences in A to B travel times - the top speed of the IEP is not massively higher than the trains being replaced. But it is clear that travel times in general are expected to be reduced by around 15-20 minutes on some routes, with the added benefits of increased reliability, safety, and enhanced passenger comfort in the 628 seat trains too.
In fact this increase in capacity may well turn out to be one of the biggest benefits, while the reliability factor will improve trip times in general. We're looking at a potential 40% increase in seat capacity into London Paddington and close to 30% into Kings Cross during morning peak travel times.
Aside from the obvious benefits to commuters of increased capacity and reliability, there are some additional benefits which look sure to make the trains desirable.
• Passengers can anticipate comfortable rides with air conditioning, adequate leg room, CCTV, high quality wi-fi, plenty of space for baggage, and room for items like bicycles and prams.
• Those passengers with disabilities which prevent easy access are not forgotten. IEP trains will be built with a strong focus on improved disabled accessibility, including well thought out space for wheelchairs and easy disabled access to rest rooms.
• For the environment, IEPs will do their bit to reduce greenhouse emissions, with an anticipated reduction of CO2 per passenger of close on a half. It's reported that the carbon footprint offered by fast rail travel is significantly less than both car and plane.
• Electronic device connectivity is well catered for with free onboard WiFi, distributed via the latest Cat7 ethernet cabling. In addition, windows are created from special glass designed to reduce any negative interference with mobile phone signals.
• Potential economic benefits to UK businesses overall cannot be underestimated. Fast train links bring suppliers, consumers, and business partners closer together. Knock on effects to the UK's economy can be huge. The manufacturing site at Newton Aycliffe is a good example of positive economic impacts, with over 700 people employed.
The July 2012 announcement by the British Government signalled intent to place a £4.5 billion (total over the 27 year term of the contract), 110 train, and 596 carriage order for the trains to be built. But the news caused uproar in some circles once it became clear that they would be built mainly by Hitachi in Japan, although overall the project will be run by a consortium known as Agility Trains - a combination of Hitachi and John Laing. Go here for a government view of the IEP Project.
In fact Hitachi will reportedly build the shells at a factory in near to Hiroshima - they state because of the complex technology needed - then ship them to the UK for final fitting. That final UK build will take place in a newly built complex at Newton Aycliffe, near Darlington in the North East of England. Construction of the facility was completed in September 2015, ready for production of the trains to start. New maintenance depots for the bullet trains can also be found at Swansea, Bristol, and Doncaster.
The fleet will be composed of 122 electric (class 800) and bi-mode (class 801) trains, which can be configured to run with anywhere from 5 up to 10 carriages. The total number of a carriages works out at 369 for the Western line, and 497 for the East Coast.
The program delivers two variants of train class for the fleet; the Class 800 and the Class 801. The Class 800 is an electric and diesel-electric hybrid, the Class 801 is just an electric only. The Class 800/801 is a Super Express train which will be designed on the Hitachi A-train which has been gracing the rails of the Japanese rail network for a number of years now.
Read more on technical details around how the trains operate and engine/carriage configurations here.
There are a number of new maintenance depots planned to be built and ready in time for 2017.
For the Great Western Line these depots will be located at:
Filton Triangle - which is actually based in the Stoke Gifford region
Maliphant Sidings - a depot in Swansea, South Wales
The former depot owned by Eurostar called North Pole - which is actually in West London.
For the East Coast Main Line, depots are at Clayhills/Aberdeen, Bounds Green/London, and Doncaster. The contract for maintenance lies with Hitachi Rail Europe for the next 27 years.
Some minor changes need to be completed at other existing depots, including Bounds Green and Ferme Park in London and the Edinburgh facility at Craigentinny.
From a reliability perspective, Hitachi Rail are anticipating strong performance, citing failure times on their website of ''60,000 miles per casualty for electric trains and for all the other trains 45,000 miles between casualties''.
Introducing The IEP Train
High speed train travel within the UK is in for a shake up over the next few years with the arrival on British tracks of the new IEP train, or Hitachi Super Express as it's also known.
If you've ever had the good fortune to visit Japan and travel across prefectures you'll already have experienced the ultimate in present day high speed train travel. The Japanese Bullet Train - the Shinkansen - is an impressive and integral part of Japanese life and culture. The iconic Japanese train is the first one anyone thinks of when high speed trains are mentioned.
While the IEP's look destined to create a great experience for passengers, there are some murky aspects hiding in the background. Not least the expense of the project as a whole.
Costs of nearly £62 million and £31 million are being offered as the cost of upgrading the East Coast and Great Western lines respectively to be able to handle the trains, with changes having to be made to platforms, signalling, tracks, tunnels, and other rail infrastructure.
There is some talk of certain platforms at Bristol Temple Meads in particular having curved platforms that won't accept the IEP carriages.
Increased Boarding Time?
With an increased number of passengers all getting on to a train, there may be increased waiting times at some stops as passengers all try to board - and if the baggage holding facilities end up with any reduction to those currently available, here will be extra time as everyone tries to stow their stuff securely.
Destinations Can't Be Served?
It's well known that the Great Western trains will only be able to run on electric power as far as Bristol, then requiring a change to diesel for onward West Country journeys into Somerset, Devon, and Cornwall. The IEP can't handle the gradients in the area with pure electric power alone.
There are significant risks that certain areas of track won't be electrified early enough to deliver the necessary capability for the trains to run under electric power. Cardiff and Swansea look to be in the firing line of any delays.
The big cost problem here is that the Department For Transport's deal with Hitachi means they'll have to pay for the electric trains whether the tracks are ready or not - a figure which equates to a reported £400,000 a day. They have until May 2018 to solve this problem, or incur the extra costs.
The arrival of the IEP train has been a long time coming. The very first decision to replace the ailing Intercity 125 fleet was made as far back as 2005, when a plan was put in place to award the contract, procure the trains and have them in full service by the early part of 2015 on both the Great Western Main Line and the East Coast Main Line.
With delays of three years on the programme, it'll be 2017 or 2018 before we see the IEP in passenger service. But all the indications are that the wait will have been worth it. Passengers can expect faster trains, improved comfort and reliability, and most definitely increased capacity.
With a lot of money at stake - the deal with Agility Trains is worth £5.7 billion over the course of the contract - it's imperative that the IEP Intercity Express project does actually end up with the promised passenger benefits.