Japan starts testing world's fastest bullet train

Alfa-X is slated for service in 2030, leaving room for another high-speed rail to catch up

JR East unveils to the media its new test bullet train Alfa-X in Rifu, Miyagi prefecture on May 9, 2019.

This week, Japanese railway company JR East started testing its new Alfa-X, a high-speed bullet train that is designed to achieve a top speed of 400kph, or 249mph, which would make it the fastest commercial train in the worldр outpacing China's Fuxing train, which runs at 10 kph slower despite being designed with the same top speed capabilities as the Alfa-X.

Alfa-X has a nose that spans 22 meters (72 feet) to cut through wind resistance, and according to Bloomberg it will have "air brakes on the roof and also use magnetic plates near the rails to slow down, in addition to conventional brakes."

The three years worth of test runs began on Friday, with the 10-car train making the trip "between the cities of Aomori and Sendai at night" without passengers. Once it enters operation sometime around 2030, however, it would be able to shuttle passengers at 360kph, or roughly 224mph and would be equipped with air brakes on the roof and also use magnetic plates near the rails to slow down, in addition to conventional brakes.

That long lead time suggests that there might be an opening for another high-speed bullet train option to overtake the Alfa-X Shinkansen train in speed for commercial railway service.

As Bloomberg notes the front runner for the top-speed crown may be a magnetically levitated train line that's being built between Tokyo and Nagoya, which is expected to open in 2027. That train, however, takes advantage of a tunnel-heavy route to achieve a top speed of 505kph (314mph). That project was also beset by scandal in 2018, though it appears to still be underway.

Additionally, many startups are working on bringing a so-called Hyperloop to market. Hyperloop pods would run in a low-pressure tube on magnetic levitation rails (or alternatively, air-bearings), allowing them to reach theoretical speeds greater than 600mph. But since SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk pitched the idea in 2013, few startups or teams have been able to deliver on a speed record. Virgin Hyperloop One, arguably the best-funded Hyperloop startup, may be the closest: it has a test track outside of Las Vegas where it has been able to log a speed of 240mph (386kph) in less than a quarter-mile (300 meters).

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