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As with cars, Japan is at the forefront of hybrid technology for passenger trains, combining diesel power with electricity.

Winding past rice paddies and lazily blowing its whistle along bubbly creeks, this two-car train in rural northern Japan is the latest entrant in the battle against global warming.

Following its runaway success with hybrid cars, Japan is bringing the world hybrid trains. Regular passenger runs were set to start this week on a short mountain route, the first time a diesel-electric hybrid train has been put into commercial service.

"It's part of our efforts to be green," said Yasuaki Kikuchi, a spokesman for East Japan Railway Co.

Compared with cars, trains are a relatively small contributor to global warming. But the popularity of hybrid cars, such as Toyota Motor Corp.'s best-selling Prius, is helping to boost interest in hybrid trains. Railway companies around the world, including Amtrak in the United States and Germany's Deutsche Bahn AG, are working on or investigating the technology.

Cost remains a major hurdle. The Kiha E200 train, which boosts fuel efficiency by 20 percent and reduces emissions by up to 60 percent, cost nearly $1.7-million, twice as much as a standard train, Kikuchi said.

It has a diesel engine, two electric motors under each car and lithium ion batteries on the roof.

With the word "hybrid" splashed in silver across its side, the otherwise normal-looking train rolls quietly out of Nakagomi station, powered by its four electric motors.

The diesel engine kicks in with a rumble only when needed to climb a hill or if the batteries run low.

The batteries are recharged when the train slows down.

After the power is switched off, the motors continue to turn for a while, and that energy - wasted in a nonhybrid train - is used to recharge the batteries.

The Kiha E200, which seats 46 and can hold 117 people including straphangers, is debuting on a 49-mile route that runs about once an hour through a mountain resort area. East Japan Railway will gather data on fuel consumption, which is expected to vary with different passenger loads, maintenance needs and winter heating, said company engineer Mitsuyoshi Yokota.

In North America, Railpower Technologies Corp. has developed a hybrid train called the Green Goat for moving freight cars in a rail yard.

But industry efforts are focused on developing cleaner fuels for nonhybrid trains, said Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, a trade association representing engine and equipment manufacturers.

"Here in the U.S., we're not really looking at hybrid technology as replacing the main locomotive," he said.

Railways contribute just 4 percent of U.S. transportation-related emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas blamed for global warming.

Hybrid train fights global warning

Passenger service for the Japanese hybrid train began Tuesday, the first time a diesel-electric hybrid training was put into commercial use.

Emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter can be reduced by up to 60 percent, and fuel consumption by up to 20 percent compared to conventional trains.

Lithium-ion batteries power the electric motors and store electricity.

Electric motors power the train and recharge the batteries when braking.

Diesel engine powers the generator when batteries are low.

Source: East Japan Railway Co.