KOBUCHIZAWA, Japan - It seems an unlikely venue for a potential revolution in public transport - a sleepy town in the lush, pine-carpeted mountains of rural Japan. But this is where travellers began paying yesterday to board the world's first hybrid train service.
The brightly coloured Hybrid Train E200 pulled quietly out of the station carrying about 100 passengers. It was waved off by cheering schoolchildren, a crew of traditional Taiko drummers and several ecstatic trainspotters.
Mikihiro Kobayashi, a 27-year-old engineer who took the day off work to see the E200's debut, said: "I love trains and wanted to check this one out for myself. I hope Japan exports it because the environment is becoming a big issue around the world."
Looking like a slightly sleeker version of the mechanical warhorses that ferry millions of Japanese to work and school every day, the train might pass unnoticed by the keenest trainspotter. But inside it is quieter than a conventional train, thanks to a battery-powered motor that powers it at low speeds.
Screens in each carriage give all the detail any passenger could want. Designed and run by the transport giantJapan Rail (JR), each 180-million-yen train is powered by a super fuel-efficient diesel engine and lithium-ion batteries that recharge every time the brakes are applied, a system that cuts power, noise and emissions by up to 60 per cent.
Kenji Motate, of JR East, said: "We're very proud of it. This is a very beautiful area so it is fitting that a train so kind to the environment is debuting here."
The clean-energy prototype will hum its way between picturesque Yamanashi and Nagano Prefectures in central Japan, a hikers' paradise where the revolutionary engine can be tested on all the hills. In the summer the line is packed with families on day trips and in winter it ferries people to ski resorts whose managers are increasingly alarmed by a lack of snow in the warming climate.
Mineko Yamaguchi, a pensioner, said: "I've been riding this line for 40 years, so when I heard about this train I took my two grandchildren along to show them. I'm teaching them about the beauty of the natural environment." Her grandson, six-year-old Ayase, said the train was "cool" and promised to tell his friends about it.
Japan is a world leader in the development of hybrid cars and low-emission buses and plans are already well advanced to run a hybrid tram in Tokyo. But a JR spokesman said it was "too early" to contemplate selling the E200 on the open market. "We're still trying to modify and improve its performance," he said. JR said that it wanted to make the E200 10 per cent more fuel efficient than conventional trains, but admitted that compared to standard diesel trains, its current prototype was expensive.
"We think it is inevitable that we will have to spend money if we are going to save the environment," the spokesman said.
© 2007 Independent News and Media Limited