Inspection Train

E491 2080

One of the reasons I like to collect Japanese trains is that they have such a variety of forms. Although a few models, such as the E231 commuter trains, are commonplace, a plethora of different-looking trains can be seen in and around Tōkyō on a daily basis.

One of the more distinctive trains out there is known as “Doctor Yellow”, a bright-yellow Shinkansen (bullet train) used to inspect the high-speed lines. There are actually two Doctor Yellows in existence at present, one owned by JR Central, and one by JR West, both based on the current 700 Series Shinkansen. These could be seen in Tōkyō, inspecting the Tōkaidō Shinkansen line (either could be used, although JR Central’s is more likely). JR East also has it’s own inspection train, (although it is white rather than yellow, and is called “East-i”), which is used on the lines running north and north-west from Tōkyō. JR East’s train is based on the E3 Mini-Shinkansen, allowing it to inspect both Shinkansen and conventional lines converted to standard-gauge.

In North American railroading the term “inspection train” usually applies to a train carrying executives on a visual inspection of the line. However, while the Japanese terms 検測車 (literally “search measurement car”) or 車検 (“search car”) often translate as “inspection vehicle”, these trains are closer in function to a North American “track geometry car”; a vehicle designed to evaluate rail wear and placement. But the Japanese versions do much more than simply inspect track: they are equipped to evaluate the track and roadbed, but also to verify the proper functioning of signaling systems (including cab signaling), and the height, tension and other aspects of the overhead power wiring.

Shinkansen, however, do not excite me as much as the conventional trains. So it was only when I discovered that JR East also had an inspection train for narrow-gauge conventional lines that my interest was piqued. In fact, they have two very similar trains: an EMU (Electric Multiple-Unit train) for inspecting electrified lines, and a DMU (Diesel Multiple-Unit train) for inspecting non-electrified lines. Both of these are three-car trains built by Hitachi and Kinki Sharyo, to a design used for the E257 EMU commuter train. Both, in fact, are able to inspect electrified lines, with the DMU equipped with a set of pantographs for measurement purposes, and used to inspect some isolated lines that cannot be reached by an electric train.

The pantographs on the middle car, which exist on both trains, appear to be used for monitoring electric lines, while the ones on the end cars (found only on the E491) are used to power the train. One Japanese hobbyist website indicates that the tips of the middle-car pantographs should be painted red, and I did find two photos that seemed to confirm this. Perhaps this is to designate their special status to maintenance crews.

Micro Ace came out with models of both the E491 “East-i E” EMU and the E193 “East-i D” DMU a couple of years ago, but these sold out quickly (a common problem with popular models; and Japanese manufacturers re-run models only infrequently). I was resigned to eventually hunting down a used version of the E491, but hadn’t brought myself to do it (I like new models).

Then a new one popped up as a “restock” on Hobby Search. I’d first assumed it was a re-run, but ordered it quickly anyway, as it was likely to remain popular. It wasn’t a re-run, and nobody else had it, and the stock status went to “waiting list” (meaning “out of stock”) as soon as I’d ordered mine. Apparently they’d received a small number from somewhere. For a while I was afraid it was an error, but then it shipped, and a few days later (this morning; EMS shipping arrives in the U.S. as Express Mail, and is delivered even on weekends) I had it in hand.

It is, in fact, new and required a short break-in run on my coffee-table test track (photo above) before it was running smoothly. It’s every bit as distinctive as the original. As shipped, it comes with Rapido couplers between the cars, but Micro Ace’s F0001 (Scharfenberg style*) or F0003 (knuckle style) replacement couplers can be fitted, as can internal lighting (although the few and relatively small windows of the train make this less interesting than it would be on a commuter train equipped with large windows and passenger seating). It’s not clear which coupler type is prototypical, although the couplers on the ends appear to be knuckle style on both the prototype and the model (on the model they’re non-operating dummys). Unlike some models of the Dr. Yellow trains, the roof-mounted search light is not operable.

The model has head and tail LED lights that light depending on the direction, and according to the description on Hobby Search’s website it is flywheel equipped, although I haven’t had mine apart yet to confirm that. It’s not “DCC Ready” (few Japanese models are, mainly Kato’s more recent ones), but I do plan to eventually convert it to DCC, along with most of my trains.

I’m getting close to putting the first loop of my layout into service (the Subway line), using DC power for now, even though the scenery is far from finished. When I do, I expect that the inaugural run will be made, fittingly enough, by the E491.

As an aside, although there have been models of various Dr. Yellow trains, I’m not aware of any having been made of the JR East E193 “East-i” Shinkansen. One could be adapted from an E3 model, but I can’t see myself going to that level of effort for a Shinkansen, although I do like the E3 design more than most.

* The Japanese couplers often called “Scharfenberg” are more technically known as “Shibata” couplers, as described on this Japanese Wikipedia page, about halfway down. Both are “tight couplers” intended for lightweight trains, but a true Scharfenberg has conical elements, where the Shibata’s are more pyramid-shaped. (Update: I have my own couplers page now, in the Prototype section).

Website updates:
- I’ve added the E491 to the Roster page, and created a new Special Trains page for the model as well, and added photos to the Roster photo album.
- I’ve created a JR East Special Trains page to describe the prototype inspection trains of JR East.
- I also created a JR East Shinkansen page to document JR East’s high-speed trains, something I’d been planning for some time.

This only lists recent and current JR East trains, so it doesn’t include the JR Central trains of the Tōkaidō Shinkansen line that serve Tōkyō. I will likely create a separate page for those eventually. (Update: I did).

== comments copied from old system
Monday, June 7, 2010 - 10:23 AM
A very nice model; I'm envious. I really like it, but I simply can't have $150 together on a moment's notice like that, which makes collecting certain items very difficult for me.

But, finding it as you did, in that one brief window of opportunity: You are very lucky! Congratulations!

Monday, June 7, 2010 - 11:04 AM

This was something I'd really wanted, so if I hadn't had the money I'd probably have paid the Visa tab for borrowing the money for an extra month. Not a good habit to get in, and in this case not needed.

On the other hand, I'd been thinking of buying a Tōhoku Shinkansen, perhaps one of the "MAX" models, this month. I think that may be deferred for a couple of weeks now. Hardly a hardship, but there is a budget for my collecting. Between this and the new Kato buildings due in a few weeks, I'm fairly deep into June's budget already, and it's only the first week.