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Noriyuki SHIRAKUNI (Corporate Officer and General Manager of the Maglev System Development Section, Chuo Shinkansen Promotion Division, Central Japan Railway Company (JR Central))

The Tokaido Shinkansen, a network of high-speed railway lines, opened right before the ’64 Tokyo Olympics

The Tokaido Shinkansen, opened between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka right before the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.

Dr. Shirakuni, who had always loved riding trains, fondly remembers a Shikansen trip with his father from Shin-Osaka to Nagoya. This 210 km/h train, the fastest at the time, was called the “dream super express.” “The Shinkansen was on an elevated track at the time, with really nothing passing by as we rode, so I didn’t quite get a real sense of its speed. But now that I think about it, I guess that was my first shinkansen experience, laughed Dr. Shirakuni.

He enters Japanese National Railways (JNR) as a train technician

As a high school student, Dr. Shirakuni enjoyed listening to his physics teacher’s lectures, so he decided to become an engineer and entered the School of Engineering Science at Osaka University. “At OU, I learned the basics of mechanical engineering, such as material mechanics and fluid mechanics.

Inspired by the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, I started track and field as a junior high school student. I was especially enamored by short distance running. At OU as well, I joined a track and field club to work out.

Wanting to utilize his knowledge in mechanical engineering, he entered Japan National Railways (abbreviated JNR, now reorganized as JR) as a mechanic. “I liked railways, so I wanted to work on them as an engineer.” He worked in railways car overhaul for 5 years, first at the Ofuna Plant and later at the Goto Plant.

Afterwards, he began working on designing Shinkansen cars at the Vehicle Design Office in Shinjuku, Tokyo. He designed axles, wheels, and pantographs through repeated trial and error. “Maintenance lies at the heart of safe and reliable railways. If parts are difficult to replace, this may cause cars to malfunction. We also need to think about how cars are used, the security of passengers, and what passengers need. There is more to ‘design’ than meets the eye,” said Dr. Shirakuni.

His unforeseen role as maglev chief

At the time, the 0-series Shikansen were primarily used, but Dr. Shirakuni was involved with designing the next generation of cars, the 100-series.

He actively performed his tasks, such as making the structure of the railway bogie simple in order to reduce its weight and adopting an eddy current brake system for the first time.

After the privatization of JNR, he was chosen to lead the development of the superconducting maglev (SCMaglev) train in 1990 when JR Central began full-scale development of the train.

“I was a bit confused. I had somewhat of a vague image of the SCMagle train to that point; the only thoughts I ever had about it were about when we would ever be able to use it. At the time, the SGMaglev train had reached a top speed of 517 km/h at a test track in Miyazaki, but I just wondered what superconducting magnet was. I didn’t give it all that much thought,” reflected Dr. Shirakuni.

Combining airplane and Shinkansen technology

One difficult challenge in SGMaglev train development is determining just how light and how aerodynamic the train can be made. “We would evaluate air flow around our models in wind tunnels to decide the shape of the lead cars on the Shinkansen. Even if the lead car was an aerodynamic one, when this car was put at the back, it would create vortexes and greatly increase air resistance. Also, if you were to improve the air flow by lengthening the “nose” of the front car, it would decrease the seating capacity of the car. You also have to take into consideration the flow of air between the guideway* and the car body. It was all quite perplexing.”

So at first, Dr. Shirakuni referenced the design of an airplane whose cross section is a circle. With improvement in analysis technology, he also ran repeated simulations on the computer. “It was difficult for us to decide on a shape for the SGMaglev train by combining aircraft and Shinkansen technology; we tried all sorts of ideas,” said Dr. Shirakuni. After a number of twists and turns, the “nose” of the train was extended experimentally from 9.1m to 23m, after which data was collected and analyzed, and, while balancing seating capacity and traveling performance, the “nose” was brought to its current length of 15m.

*Guideway: a physical structure along which maglev vehicles are levitated

Overcoming problems and beginning construction of the Linear Chuo Shinkansen

The challenges weren't over. When testing at Miyazaki, Dr. Shirakuni encountered the problem of a “quench,” the sudden loss of superconductivity, as well.

When friction heat locally generated in the superconductor coils by vibration arising from the running train cars exceeded the temperature required to maintain the superconductive state, the magnet quench occurred. However, the problem was resolved by changing the coils with those that cause less deformation by vibration. “We hit a lot of walls during the development of the SGMaglev train, but we found solutions to each and every time, without ever giving up.”

In 2003, the train set a new world record of 581 km/h on a test track in Yamanashi Prefecture, and broke its own record with a speed of 603 km/h in 2015. The train has been tested over a total of 1.46 million km, a distance equal to 36.5 laps around the earth. The construction of the Chuo Shinkansen maglev line commenced in 2014. The Chuo Shinkansen maglev line will begin service from Shinagawa to Nagoya in 2027, and will extend its service to Osaka in 2045.

Improving yourself over the long haul

To current students at OU, Dr. Shirakuni had this advice: “I want you to pursue your studies in your field over a long period of time and improve yourself. If you find a prospect of your future during that process, it’s important to stay the course and make steady efforts toward the goal.”

Dr. Shirakuni sees himself as an "average person." He added with a smile, "That's why I feel that I need to work that much harder than everyone else."

Noriyuki Shirakuni

A graduate of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, School of Engineering, Osaka University in 1975, Dr. Shirakuni received his doctorate in Engineering from the Graduate School of Engineering Science at Osaka University in 2006. He entered JNR in 1975, and after serving as chief of the Vehicle Division of the Hamamatsu Plant, he became assistant chief of the Vehicle Division, Vehicle Department, JR Central Shinkansen HQ in 1987, Chief of the Maglev Development HQ in 1993, Director of the Yamanashi Test Center, JR Central Shinkansen HQ in 2002, General Manager of the Maglev System Development Division in 2006, and Managing Executive Officer in 2010. He began at his current position as Corporate Officer and General Manager of the Maglev System Development Section, Chuo Shinkansen Promotion Division, JR Central in June 2012.

Corporate Information

Central Japan Railway Company (JR Central)
(Headquarters: 1-1-4 Meieki, Nakamura-ku, Nagoya, Aichi)

JR Central was established after the privatization of the former Japan National Railways (JNR). JR Central manages the Tokaido Shinakansen, a major artery in Japan that connects Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka, as well as 12 lines in the Nagoya and Shizuoka areas. JR Central has some 18,000 employees.

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