Japanese trains to beam travel info to cell phones

There isn’t anything more frustrating when you ride a train than seeing your station whiz by, a blur through the windows, as you realize the express train you’re riding on isn’t making a stop there. In Japan, where there are sometimes four different types of express running on the same line it’s a common mistake, but technology promises to come to the rescue.

A prototype system developed by Mitsubishi Electric Co. Ltd. and East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) will send information to a user’s cell phone about the train they are traveling on, the scheduled stops, at what time it will reach each station and other information pertinent to the journey.

The system is on show at this week’s Ceatec exhibition in Chiba, Japan, and uses Sony Corp.’s Felica near-range communications system as a base. Felica is already embedded in many cell phones in Japan and is used by JR East for its IC-card commuter and travel passes. On the telephone a Java application is also required.

With the application running a communications session automatically begins when the phone is brought within a centimeter of a panel inside the train.

Within a few seconds the phone contains a wealth of information about the train on which the user is riding, including the railway line name, the car number and its scheduled stops, said Tomoya Shirakashi, of Mitsubishi’s Transport system engineering department.

Additional information such as that on transfers and the wider railway network is available but is too heavy to be sent by the Felica system, so an infrared transmitter in the ceiling of the train carriage can send that down to phones.

JR East is already installing some Mitsubishi Electric developed systems in its trains. Those traveling on the Yamanote Line that loops Tokyo and the Chuo Line that runs west from the capital all have two LCD panels above each door.

The right-hand panel displays information about the train route and scheduled stops, much like that to be sent on the cell phone system, while the left-hand panel shows advertising and other information.

A wireless LAN system has been introduced on the trains so that the latest information can be downloaded at stations. Recently the left-hand screen also began running news reports from cable news channels. The reports are pushed to the trains as they pull into stations.

JR East hasn’t decided on a roll-out plan for the new cell phone information service but development is now complete and the operator is considering a launch schedule, said Takayuki Matsumoto, of JR East’s research and development center.

Matsumoto said the rail operator hopes the new service will be especially useful for passengers who don’t understand Japanese or English, the two languages currently used on the in-car LCD monitors. The cell phone system can be customized to offer information in additional languages such as Korean and Chinese.

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