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Shinkansen Shinkansen

Swift as the wind, quiet as the forest . . .

 

Another famous aspect of Japan is their high-speed rail system named the Shinkansen. This picture combines three popular symbols of Japan—the Shinkansen “Super Express” racing past Mount Fuji at 250 kilometres per hour during cherry blossom time.

Shinkansen and Fujiyama

Many westerners having never been to Japan and experienced the Shinkansen first hand have a slanted view of the technology: they get fascinated by the high speeds (“seduced by technological wonder”) and think these trains are super-special and that there are not very many of them.

Here's a Super Express on the Tokaido Shinkansen that connects Tokyo with Osaka. When service started in time for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the 550 kilometre journey took four hours, thirty minutes, for an average speed of 120 kilometres per hour. Since then, train speeds and track systems have steadily improved such that Tokyo to Osaka today takes just two hours, thirty minutes, for an average speed of 220 kilometres per hour.

As I have written in another context, the miracle of the Shinkansen is not the high speeds (although that is pretty amazing in its own way). The real miracle of the Shinkansen is the schedules. On the Tokaido line there are 150 of these “Super Express” trains every day in both directions. To put that in perspective, a 240 kilometre per hour train leaves Tokyo for Osaka (and vice versa) every eight minutes on average. At peak times, trains are clustered with arrivals and departures only three or four minutes apart.

On one of our recent trips in Japan, we took the Shinkansen from Kyoto to Tokyo. We booked our trip on the Nozomi (Dream), versus the (slightly) slower Hikari (Flash).

Of the sixteen carriages seating ninety passengers apiece on our train, fourteen of the carriages were reserved seating only . . .

There is a fine (academic research-oriented) book on the Shinkansen by Christopher P. Hood of the Cardiff Japanese Studies Centre. The book is appropriately entitled Shinkansen.

In addition to a history of the Shinkansen (going all the way back to the 1930s), the book covers many aspects of operations, training, and safety. These last aspects are crucial to creating a transportation system that is truly a system, as opposed to simply a high-speed “technological wonder” without all the required supporting infrastructure.

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Page Updated 2016 February 23