The HS2 high-speed train is set to transform the UK's rail net. Image: Hitachi Rail Ltd

Japanese-style bullet trains will be coming to the UK after a US$2.6 billion contract was signed on Thursday for London’s next-generation High Speed 2 rail project, or HS2.

The 54, next-generation trains will be designed, produced and maintained by a 50-50 joint venture between Japan’s Hitachi Rail and France’s Alstom, albeit with localized production.

Japan was the first country to commercialize high-speed trains, with its iconic Shinkansen network coming online in 1964, in time for the Tokyo Olympics of that year. And the company that built the first bullet train remains competitive in the space. According to a press release from Hitachi, HS2 trains will be the fastest operational trains in Europe.

That should provide a boost for not just the British transport system and its users but also the self-confidence of a country that despite having invented the train has endured decades of clunky rail services.

Fast, quiet, clean

Hitachi has created multiple generations of “bullet trains”, which the company claims are “the most iconic and punctual rolling stock product in the world.” Alstom operates the widely praised TGV system in France.

The build of the 200-meter, eight-car trains begins in 2025. They will run between London and Birmingham in Phase 1 and travel at up to 225 miles per hour (360 kilometers per hour).

Carbon-friendliness is as important as speed. The fleet will be 100% electric and be among the world’s most energy-efficient due to their lower train mass per passenger, aerodynamic design, regenerative power and latest energy-efficient traction technology, Hitachi claimed.

Merging technologies from the Shinkansen and the EU’s high-speed network, the trains will be “some of the fastest, quietest and most energy-efficient high-speed trains anywhere in the world,” HS2 said.

Britain’s planned high-speed train still lags China’s CR400AF-G train which can reach 350 kmh.

The order also provides a locomotive for local employment.

The order to “create Britain’s most important train” will create 2,500 jobs, Hitachi said. And it will boost the UK’s two key train plants: The Litchurch Lane works in central England, run by Alstom, and Hitachi’s Newton Aycliffe plant in the northeast, Bloomberg reported.

Hitachi already operates a small number of high-speed Javelin trains in the UK. These have been providing local services on the short line linking London and the Channel Tunnel since the 2012 London Olympics. That line is the only high-speed rail line in the country – the HS1.

The far more ambitious HS2 first-phase contract was originally set for 2019 but has suffered a series of delays. Original bidders included Germany’s Siemens and Spain’s Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles.

Bringing Britain up to speed

In the global space, the project represents a particular victory for the Japanese-French consortium. Both companies face stiff competition in the high-speed train sector from China, which is armed with technological nous and price competitiveness, Kyodo reported.

But the real winner should be the long-suffering British traveler. In a humiliation for the country that invented the train, the UK has for decades suffered from a first-mover disadvantage.

British rail users have been plagued by multiple gremlins, including endless technical upgrades to ancient lines and signal systems, and resultant spotty services. Non-technical issues include high end-user prices, industrial unrest and privatization controversies.

Senior executives of both the companies involved in HS2 diplomatically alluded to these woes in the Hitachi press release.

“I am proud of the role that Hitachi will play in helping to improve mobility in the UK through this project,” said Andrew Barr, group CEO of Hitachi Rail.

“HS2 is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform Britain by building a sustainable transport system fit for the 21st century,” said Alstom’s managing director, UK & Ireland, Nick Crossfield.

Technologies from the Shinkansen train will be incorporated into the British version. Photo: Wikipedia

The three-phase plan is set to transform the UK’s rail network.

According to HS2’s website, Phase 1 will feature 140 miles of track linking London and the West Midlands, with four new stations. Phase 1 will also link to the existing net, providing onward services to Northern England and Scotland. Phase 2 will extend the high-speed line northward, while Phase 3 will extend it north and east.

The net will link such key cities as Liverpool, Glasgow, Birmingham, and London, and once fully operational will serve 30 million people, HS2 said – or about half the UK population.

“Today’s announcement places Britain firmly at the forefront of the high-speed rail revolution,” said UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps on Thursday.

It is about time, given how slowly the UK has chugged its way to the high-speed rail party. The country is decades behind Asian players such as Japan, South Korea and China, which now operates the world’s longest high-speed rail line.

Yet relief for British train users is hardly going to pull up at a nearby platform any time soon. According to the BBC, Phase 1 will not be open until 2029-2033; for Phase 2 it will be 2035-2040; and there are already questions over the feasibility of Phase 3.