Japanese Bullet Trains


Bullet Train Network is a Symbol of Modern Japan

The Shinkansen is a network of high speed rail links built and operated by four Japanese Railway Group companies

First introduced in 1964, the Tokaida Shinkansen ran from Tokyo to Osaka. Today Japan’s bullet train network now links most of the major cities on the islands of Honshu and Kyushu.

The Tokyo to Osaka segment of the Shinkansen network is believed to be the busiest high speed railway line in the world. Carrying 375,000 passengers per day, for a total of 4.5 billion people over the course of its entire operational history, the Tokaida Shinkansen has carried more people than every other high speed rail network in the world, combined.

The Origins of the Shinkansen Network

The first proposal for a Japanese high speed rail network was made in 1940. The term “bullet train” arose in response to the Shinkansen’s high rate of speed and the locomotives’ bullet-shaped nose .The plan was to connect to rail links in Asia through Korea with a tunnel. As the war began to turn in favour of the Americans in 1942 and 1943, these plans were shelved. Following the war, Japan was occupied with rebuilding its badly damaged transportation infrastructure.

By the mid-1950s, the narrow gauge Tokyo-Osaka line was nearing its maximum capacity. Seeking to ease the congestion, the Ministry of Railways chose to re-examine the prewar high speed rail proposal.(Hood, Christopher P. (2006). Shinkansen – From Bullet Train to Symbol of Modern Japan. London: Routledge)

Growth of the Shinkansen Network

Government approval was given at the end of 1958. Construction began in 1959. The first line was completed in 1964, just time for the Tokyo Olympics. On Japan’s narrow gauge network, the travel time from Tokyo to Osaka was six hours. With a track speed of 200 miles per hour and up, the Shinkansen slashed the travel time in half, to just three hours. The new bullet train proved to be so popular that it had already carried 100 million passengers by 1967 and Japan Railways began planning for the expansion of the Shinkansen system as a result.

The first extension was west to Hiroshima and Fukuoka. This addition was completed in 1975. In the late 1970s, two more extensions to the Shinkansen network were added, connecting Hachinoe and Niigata. Additional extensions were planned beyond that, however, as Japan Railways teetered on the edge of bankruptcy at the end of the decade, many of these plans were scrapped.(Kakumoto,Ryohie. “Sensisble Politics and Transport Theories” Japan Railway and Transport Review.1999)

The Legacy of Japan’s Bullet Trains

Japanese bullet trains have an enviable safety record. Over the course of the system’s 44 year history, there have been no derailments or collisions, despite typhoons and earthquakes at regular intervals. In addition, there has only been one fatality, which occurred when a passenger was caught in a closing door.

The Shinkansen network has had a major influence on the Japanese economy. It has been estimated that the Japanese bullet trains have saved Japan over 400 million man hours. They have also revitalized rural villages by improving access to urban centres.(Economic and Social Effects of the Shinkansen)

The Future of Japan’s Bullet Trains

In more recent years, concerns about noise pollution and the inherent limitations of conventional railway wheels have begun to limit Shinkansen speed increases. This suggests the Japanese Shinkansen network may be approaching its technological limit. This belief is reinforced by the fact that Japan is planning to build a network of maglev trains, which it plans to put into operation, sometime in the year 2025.


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