For 40 years Japanese bullet trains have stood above all other high-speed counterparts. Howard Johnston and Neil Pulling take a nostalgic look at the bullet train and how it has influenced rail today.
By the 1960s, things really started to ramp up for rail and the promise for high-speed travel across nations. Record-breaking speeds were being reached across Europe and a few prestige services were reaching averages of 100mph (160km/h) on some stretches.
It was the Japanese bullet train, however, that introduced modern high-speed rail services to the world in 1964. The dramatic appearance of its successive generations and association with technological excellence has made the bullet train synonymous with its homeland.
Generically and officially termed 'super expresses' (chotokkyu), it is by two other names that the service is best known. Bullet train (dangan ressha) derives from the streamlined shapes conceived more than 30 years earlier.
Shinkansen means new trunk line, dedicated infrastructure built for the high-speed services. In popular usage the terms have become interchangeable.
THE CHALLENGE OF THE FUTURE
Japan's geography and modern history were key drivers in the development of the Shinkansen. A 2,000km-long archipelago with four main islands, Honshu (mainland), Hokkaido, Shikoku and Kyushu, Japan has few natural resources and a largely mountainous terrain that severely constrains land use, with about 80% considered uninhabitable.
The most populous island, with 80% of the national 127 million population and eight of the ten largest Japanese cities, Honshu has an intensively developed southern coastal strip that has led railway operators to consider more efficient rail links as early as the 1930s.
Japan's emergence from World War II devastation and early years of the 'economic miracle' forced the pace of rail development, however. It was clear that the existing 3ft 6in (1,067mm) gauge rail system could not deliver much in terms of accelerated schedules.
Demographic projections indicated that capacity limitations were even more of a problem. In the post-war years, 80% of Japan's workforce and 85% of the value of the country's manufacturing developed in the coastal sprawl north-east and south-west from Tokyo. Between 1945-55, the national population rose by over 17 million (24%), with another nine million added in the next decade.
Electrified in 1956, the pre-Shinkansen Tokaido line – just 3% of the rail network by length – was approaching passenger and freight levels of a quarter of national rail traffic.
Intensive land use and high prices meant that long-distance commuting on a vast scale would be needed to sustain growth. Taking into account the growing and relatively young population, that was most profoundly marked in the coastal strip, and projections at that time indicated that passenger figures would double within 20 years.
However, with car ownership not widespread and an efficient national road network far in the future, rail represented the best prospect for mass passenger transport.
NEW TOKAIDO LINE – THE FIRST SHINKANSEN
The radical solution was an entirely new self-contained standard gauge (1,435mm) line. Freed of the temptation to join existing tracks, the lines could be engineered for high speed throughout.
The Tokaido (east sea route) Shinkansen would join Tokyo and Osaka along a 500km (312-mile) urbanised strip undergoing continuing economic and population growth. Proportionally small as part of the whole rail network, it already carried around a quarter of the country's total passengers.
Prior to the new line, a journey between the two cities took almost eight hours. In contrast, featuring few stations en route and a 25kVAC overhead power supply, the Shinkansen was, by the time of opening, a format wholly devoted to passenger trains that immediately halved previous travel times.
Original lines were left in place to handle local services and freight. With a profusion of ports, highly developed coastal shipping and the later growth of road and air freight, Japan's railways were, and remain, largely a passenger operation.
LOW MAINTENANCE, HIGH SPEED
Setting a pattern for future Shinkansen (and apparent in many subsequent high-speed rail operations beyond Japan), the crossing-free new Tokaido line used tunnels and elevated sections to maintain levels and minimise curves. With a consistent four-track operation and pairs of island platforms at intermediate stations, point work and maintenance was much reduced.
Designed solely for conveying passengers on a common style of purpose-built trains, the way was clear for introducing the world's first regular intensive high-speed rail services.
Constructing the 515km Tokaido Shinkansen between the capital and Osaka's Shin-Osaka station began in April 1959. In spite of the project's immensity, a 30-strong train fleet with capabilities vastly in advance of any predecessor was in place to begin services on the new line in October 1964.
Helping further showcase the achievement to the world, bullet trains began public operations shortly before the opening of the Tokyo Olympics. Using the same '0' series trains from Tokyo to Osaka, taking five and four hours respectively, the initial pattern was sixty trains in each direction.
Continuing the Japanese practice of naming different levels of service, the new Tokaido line service was made up of all-stations Kodama ('echo') and the limited stop Hikari ('light').
SHINKANSEN AND OPERATORS
Created under the state-owned Japanese National Railways which was dissolved as an inefficient and heavily indebted body in 1987, Shinkansen operations are now in the hands of privatised regional companies, three being publicly quoted. Collectively represented as the Japan Rail Group, this corporate division allows for through-workings on Shinkansen that cross company boundaries. A common control centre and ticketing system covers the network.
As successive Shinkansen routes were added, the economic case for additional lines diminished. No other part of Japan offered anything like the population density and economic significance of the area served by the Tokaido Shinkansen, and that route remains the busiest on the network.
Nevertheless, the Sanyo Shinkansen, effectively an extension of the first line, was authorised in 1965 and fully completed by 1975, taking the new format for the first time onto a second island, Kyushu.
These represent a distance of 2,175km (1,350 miles), with new lines and extensions in hand. Other routes similar to Shinkansen operation are Morika-Akita, Fukushima-Shinjo, Hakata-Minami and Gala-Yuzawa.
Line maintenance is carried out overnight, with services maintaining a constant seven-day regular interval timetable.
BULLET TRAINS – THE ROLLING STOCK
Designing and building successive generations of Bullet Trains mirror a characteristic of the Japanese economy – cooperation between government, research bodies and ostensibly competing manufacturing companies. Contributors to the programme include Kawasaki Heavy Industry, Nippon Sharyo, Hitachi, Tokyu Car and Kinki Sharyo.
Shinkansen have never featured line-side signals, thus bullet trains have featured forms of automatic train control and in-cab signalling. Featuring a high power-to-weight ratio, the electric multiple units are designated by series, usually with sub-divisions. They have featured varying lengths from six to 16 cars, with some subject to reformation in the light of operating experience.
Now largely withdrawn, the '0' series was longest in production and the largest in number. Introduced in 1999, the Series 700, which forms the mainstay of Tokaido and Sanyo line services, is likely to remain the largest type for some time. Other variants include double-decker versions, limited-tilt capability, high-density seating for commuter routes and units for the 'mini Shinkansen' conversions on narrow gauge alignments.
For overseas visitors, English translations are used on important signage and announcements. Although present in the early years, restaurant car operations have given way to at-seat service.
The Japanese railway industry has enjoyed worldwide export success, although the sale of the bullet train system has been limited in comparison with the French TGV and German ICE.
Regional neighbour China is a significant customer for the Japanese product however, and Taiwan has created its high-speed rail operation based upon bullet train practice in association with Japanese manufacturers. Also incorporating bullet train technology, first shipments were made in 2007 of the 29 six-car Javelin fleet for operation on the UK high-speed 1 line.
SPEED, VOLUME AND SAFETY
From an operating speed of 210km/h (143mph) the bullet train has only increased in speed through line improvements and newer stock. For Tokyo-Osaka passengers, this has led to a reduction from four to two-and-a-half hours since 1964.
With variations upwards from 240km/h (149mph), according to line and stock, the highest operating speeds, 300km/h (186mph), are on the Sanyo Shinkansen by 500 and N700 series trains. In a world-beating average between terminus stations, the 554km (344 miles) between Shin-Osaka and Hakata have been scheduled at 242.5km/h (152mph) for over a decade.
From the outset, the Shinkansen project was as much about increasing capacity as speed: it took less than three years for the hugely successful operation to record its 100 millionth passenger.
MASS-MARKET PASSENGER TRANSPORT
Not about pampering a small elite, these trains were for the mass market. In the 30 years to 1999 the Tokaido Shinkansen was able to absorb a doubling of passenger numbers to 130 million. For medium and long-distance journeys, this mainly means taking a bullet train.
Competing with a high-quality domestic airline industry rail has three-quarters of the passenger journeys up to two-and-a-half hours. It is not until distances exceed 1,000km that air travel gains a higher market share. Shinkansen services have played no small part in Japan having the world's highest proportion of passenger journeys by rail.
German and French tenure of world rail speed records since the 1990s has tended to divert attention from the sheer scale of high-speed operation in Japan, an achievement all the greater in the context of challenging terrain that is subject to extreme seismic activity.
Shinkansen operators have continued to increase frequencies, sustain near-flawless timekeeping and have, as of 2007, the enviable record of no fatality having befallen a passenger due to the service's operation.
JAPAN'S HIGH-SPEED RAIL FUTURE
In 2005 Japan experienced its first recorded fall in national population, a trend that if sustained will lead to that falling to 100 million by 2050. One of the country's ever-present needs is handling the implications of its demographic structure.
With a long-lived populace, with a falling birth rate and no significant immigration, rail operators cannot assume a workforce supply to underpin service expansions. Thus automation and non-labour intensive systems will characterise developments of infrastructure, stock and support systems.
In 2007 JR East announced that 320km/h-capable trains will enter service on the Tohoku Shinkansen in 2011. Similar developments may take place on the Sanyo route.
Limits to development are likely to be economic and environmental rather than technical however. Building of new lines continues and other projects are under consideration, but with the most clear-cut markets already served by Shinkansen, it seems likely that concentrating on improving local access to the existing infrastructure may appear a better return on investment.
Upon opening, the Tokaido Shinkansen cost double its projected cost, a continuing tendency that was to lead to the demise of Japanese National Railways.
Nevertheless, cost projections for the Maglev Chuo Shinkansen are similarly daunting and environmental aspects hold no greater appeal. This proposed inland route would link the main cities of the Tokaido line in even shorter times, with 581km/h (361mph) being recorded on the Yamanashi test track in 2003.
Even with the legacy of a debt burden, the Shinkansen network has served the country's people and its national economy well. Whatever long-term transport policy the country adopts, it appears certain that bullet trains will remain the showcase for Japanese domestic passenger transport.