Shinkansen: Japan’s Bullet Train

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Japan can boast of many inventions that changed the world. The Shinkansen or Japan’s Bullet Train is one such invention. LetsGo traces the history of Japan’s famous mode of lightening speed transport, the Bullet Train.

The Beginnings

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The Shinkansen (meaning new main line) is a first-of-its-kind network of high speed railway lines in Japan. The Shinkansen has lines on the Honshu and Kyushu islands of Japan. The lines were originally built and operated by the Japanese National Railways which is government-owned. The Shinkansen has been part of the Japan Railways Group, which is private, since 1987.

Initially discussed in the 1930s, the bullet train got its English name because of its resemblance of its design to a bullet and its high speed. After the end of World War II, an idea of a high-speed rail was put on the backburner. It wasn’t until the 1950s when high-speed rail was reconsidered. In 1957, 3000 series SE “Romancecar” train was introduced by Odakyu Electric Railway. This train set a new world speed record of 90 miles per hour for a narrow gauge train. This train gave designers the confidence to come with a train with higher speed level. Thus, 0 Series Shinkansen or the T?kaid? Shinkansen, the first of the bullet trains was launched on October 1, 1964.

Initial Success

The T?kaid? Shinkansen was launched in time for the Tokyo Olympics. The lines ran between Japan’s largest metropolitan cities. The distance that could be covered in 6 hours and 40 minutes, could now be covered in 4 hours only. In 1965, the time period was further shortened and this distance was covered within 3 hours and 10 minutes only. This service was, hence an immediate success. In 1992, with an average of 23,000 passengers per hour per direction the T?kaid? Shinkansen was the world’s busiest high-speed rail line.

The first of the trains ran up to the speed of 130 miles per hour and later on 137 miles per hour. The pioneer trains were retired on November 30, 2008. Since the first series of Shinkansen trains, many other series were introduced on other lines such as between Hiroshima and Fukuoka.


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The Shinkansen uses advanced technologies in comparison to a conventional rail. These technologies enable the Bullet Train a high-speed operation and a high standard of safety and comfort.

How it helps Japan

The Shinkansen proves to be a reliable way of transport as it is totally separated from the slow traffic of the roads. It boasts of perfect timings.

The Bullet Train has a significant effect on Japan’s business, economy, society, environment and culture. Immense time has been saved by simply switching from conventional rail to the Shinkansen. It has saved an estimated 400 million hours and benefited Japan’s economy by ¥500 billion per year. The connectivity provided by Shinkansen has helped revitalize rural towns; those in the absence of the Bullet Train would be too distant from the important metropolitan cities. The Shinkansen also contributes in saving the environment as well. For example for the distance between Tokyo and Osaka, Shinkansen produces only 16% of carbon dioxide when compared to that produced by a car for the same distance.


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Owing to the cost of construction of the Bullet Train networks in Japan, the Japan National Railways slid into debt in the 1970s and in the 1980s. The company was practically insolvent leading to the privatization of the lines in 1987.

Another challenge faced by the Shinkansen was the noise pollution caused by the trains. Noise pollution concerns have hindered increasing speed levels of Shinkansen. There have been huge protests against it. Various steps, such as, construction of noise barriers and weight saving of cars, has been taken to reduce the noise levels. Presently the aim is at reducing operational noise and minimizing the tunnel boom phenomenon (caused by trains exiting tunnels at a high speed).

Other Attractions: A varied fan-fare

Japan is an earthquake prone country. This is another problem the Shinkansen has to encounter. The Urgent Earthquake Detection and Alarm System (UrEDAS), an earthquake warning system, was introduced in 1992. The UrEDAS facilitates automatic braking of the trains in case of an earthquake.

Heavy snowing also threatens to disrupt the Shinkansen. The trains have to reduce the speed, affecting the schedule. Sprinkler systems help ease the problem of heavy snow but there is still a delay 10-20 minutes in the train timetables.

Competition with air

Te Bullet Train network has many advantages when compared to air transport. The advantages include frequency, flexibility, punctuality and convenient centrally located terminals. If the time taken to travel between two cities by Shinkansen is less than three hours, majority of passengers choose the bullet train over air transport.

In 2004, Japan celebrated 40 years of Shinkansen. The success of the Bullet Train has influenced other railways in the world on a major scale. The importance of high-speed rail has been since considered to be important and of great advantage.

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