Its nose stretched out long and flat, its torso long and sleek (punctuated by ‘airplane’ windows), the train evokes science-fiction fantasy as it smoothly glides in to Tokyo’s central railway station. It’s popularly dubbed the ‘bullet train’, due to its form and velocity. The Shinkansen high-speed train, top speed 300 kilometres per hour, has an aura about it – much like the airplane buff would sense with the erstwhile Anglo-French supersonic Concorde jet.
Concorde came to a fiery end, after a spectacular crash outside Paris in July 2000, but the Shinkansen, another child of can-do 1960s engineering, has never had a single accident fatality in its half century of operation.
”Back then, being a Shinkansen driver was the absolute dream job,” said Atsushi Niwa, now 63, who drove the first generation of these trains. He recalled how children would surround him and have their pictures taken with him. The first route, between the capital Tokyo and Osaka, was 515 kilometres long. Its inauguration on October 1, 1964 was timely – coinciding with the opening of the Tokyo Olympics. Since then the rail network of the Shinkansen, which translates as ’new main line’, has been steadily expanded. Today it has a total length of 2,663 kilometres. More than 10 billion passengers have taken a ride in the train over the past 50 years – about 200 million per year.
The Japanese were far ahead of their time. European countries later developed their own high-speed rails: France acquired its TGV (Train a Grande Vitesse) and Germany constructed its ICE (Inter City Express). But the Japanese train, with each new model adopting an ever more futuristic design, always stayed a jump ahead of the ‘European copycats’. It has a reputation of being the safest high-speed train of them all. In fact it came as a jaw-dropping shock to many Japanese when, during an earthquake in October 2004, a Shinkansen actually derailed for the first time ever.
Nobody was injured in the accident, but for days on end the derailed train was shown repeatedly on State television. The image jarred and shook the pride of the nation.
A further part of that pride is Shinkansen’s legendary punctuality, which also has no equal anywhere in the world. Except during disasters, such as earthquakes and typhoons, the train is never late. As the daily, Sankei Shimbun, reported in 2011, the average of the delayed arrivals was 36 seconds! That can be partly attributed to the train’s outstanding technology and superb maintenance. It also has a dedicated rail track, fenced in almost along the entire route. Germany’s high-speed trains, by contrast, are halted notoriously often by people or animals invading the tracks, by freight trains hogging the rails and by suburban trains blocking the stations. The Shinkansen’s departure, arrival and drive-through times are measured at 15-second intervals, and once a train falls more than a minute behind schedule, the central control headquarters is sent an alarm. Then, together with the driver, everything is done to try to get the train back on time again.
The train’s cleanliness is also legendary. Minutes before a train is due for arrival at the terminus, entire crews of cleaning personnel, in uniform, are lined up and waiting on the platform. As the train glides in, they bow deeply and then board it to quickly clear away trash and set the seats back in their proper positions. A tiny ‘magic broom’, which has sensors at its tip, makes an acoustic signal when a moist area is detected on the seats, says Yuji Maeda of the Shinkansen Maintenance Tokai company. When spills are detected, the cleaning personnel quickly change the entire seat cushion.
Shinkansen trains depart Tokyo’s central station every few minutes, nearly as frequently as normal commuter trains. Each day about 400,000 passengers travel just between Tokyo and Osaka. Fifty years ago the 515-kilometres ride took four hours; today that time is about two and a half hours. It is not so much its top speed as its consistently high-speed that sets the Shinkansen apart from its stop-start European rivals. And it is even now constantly in a development mode. The Central Japan Railway (JR Tokai) company recently conducted a successful test of a new magnetic levitation (maglev) train on a test track. The train hit a speed of 500 kilometres per hour - far and away faster than the Hayabusha, currently the fastest Shinkansen model (which has a top speed of a mere 320 kilometres per hour).