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Super-fast train shortens the ride to Japan’s Olympic sites

September 18, 1997

ABOARD THE ASAMA, Japan (AP) _ Moving at 160 mph, the new Asama bullet train will soon be ready to take sports fans to the Winter Olympic Games in Nagano.

Japan’s prized Shinkansen high-speed trains have never had a single major accident since their arrival in 1964. And with the Olympics less than five months away, the Asama has shortened the 95-mile ride north from Tokyo to Nagano by half, to just 80 minutes.

The eight-car, 630-seat Asama is named after a smoke-puffing volcanic mountain in the resort town of Karuizawa, the site of the Olympic curling competition.

This week, Nagano organizers invited reporters to test ride the Asama, which will begin service Oct. 1.

The Asama showcases top train technology, but it is not without its problems. Despite all the razzle-dazzle, it is unclear how the Asama will generate enough profits to make up for its $6.9 billion in construction costs.

The train has a pointed nose that flattens at the sides, a bit like a jumbo jet, so that it can push more gently against the air when it enters tunnels.

Without the special snout, the train could force the air in the tunnel to blast out at the other end, the way a cork pops when a champagne bottle is opened.

Keeping the tunnel ride quiet is important for the mountainous Tokyo-Nagano route and its many tunnels, said Yoshihiko Sato, general manager of East Japan Railway Co.

The Asama is not as fast as the TGVs, or Trains a Grand Vitesse, France’s high-speed rail service, with a top speed of 320 mph in test runs. Neither is it as fast as Japan’s fastest bullet train, which goes 190 mph.

But it must handle the steep slopes en route to Nagano, some of which continue for 12-mile stretches.

Shiny blue and pale silver on the outside, with a streak of red, the Asama has the plush interior of five-star hotel _ carpeted floors, pay phones, automatic doors and digital displays that relay the latest news bulletins.

Trays fold out from the back of chairs, or from arm-rests in the first-class Green Car. Even in economy, the seats lean back and swivel so two rows can face each other.

The landscape gliding past the windows turns picturesque swiftly, as the crowded tiny houses and drab skyscrapers of Tokyo give way to the trees, rice paddies and hazy hills of Nagano.

But Asama hasn’t won everyone over, especially in Nagano, which already is worried about the cost of the Olympic venues and of maintaining them once the games are over.

The government is asking the city and state of Nagano to pay at least 15 percent of Asama’s construction costs because it is unlikely to be as profitable as other bullet trains. The national government pays the total costs of most of them.

Some Nagano residents fear the Asama will persuade tourists and skiers to make day trips, rather than stay overnight in hotels.

Mikiko Wada, 23, who works at a photo shop, said she resents having to dish out the additional $10 for the $66 bullet train tickets to Tokyo.

``But I think it looks cool,″ she said.

The cancellation of one local line as well as the old express Asama has left some people disgruntled. The Asama will also skip some of the smaller stations.

One resident is suing the transportation minister over the additional cost of his son’s train tickets.

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