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The Shinkansen Turns 50: The History and Future of Japan’s High-Speed Train
[2014.10.01] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | ESPAÑOL | العربية | Русский |

On October 1, 1964, the shinkansen began commercial service between Japan’s two largest cities of Tokyo and Osaka. Now 50 years on, the iconic train runs from Aomori in the north to Kagoshima in the south. We take a look back at the country’s “bullet train” and peek down the tracks to see where it is headed next.

From “Bullet Train” to Shinkansen

Japan’s first railway line opened in 1872, plying the tracks between Shinbashi in Tokyo and Yokohama to the south in Kanagawa Prefecture. The line was constructed using 1,067 mm narrow-gauge rails, a decision thought to have been made on the advice of British engineers enlisted by the Japanese government to introduce European rail technology. According to some reports, it was under the guidance of these engineers, who argued closer rails would be more suitable to Japan’s largely steep terrain, that Japan opted for narrow-gauge.

In the subsequent decades, railroad authorities made several unsuccessful attempts to switch to a 1,435 mm wide-gauge format—most notably in the early twentieth century, when Japanese advancements in Asia required the government to consider converting to a broader single standard to accommodate faster trains. While the Japanese Government Railways expended huge amounts of political capital pushing these plans forward, in the end, the narrow gauge remained the norm.

One example of these efforts was the Dangan Ressha (bullet train) Project. Conceived in 1939, the project had the aim of boosting the transportation capabilities of the Tōkaidō and San’yō Lines, which included switching to wide-gauge rails to enable high-speed passenger and freight trains. The government procured land for tracks and tunnels, but as the Pacific War raged on, plans for the dangan ressha were abandoned. Decades later, the project’s unfinished tunnels and partially-constructed route were incorporated into the Tōkaidō Shinkansen.

Inspiration for the World’s High-Speed Trains

When plans for the shinkansen began to materialize in 1957, many opposed it, pointing to railway’s waning stature in the United States. From the time it began operating in 1964, however, the Tōkaidō Shinkansen steadily grew into a passenger favorite. By 1970, in an effort to boost its transportation capacity leading up to the World Expo to be held in Osaka that year, the line increased the number of trains in service to 16.

Following the unveiling of the Tōkaidō line, the San’yō Shinkansen began operating between Osaka and Okayama in 1972 and was extended to Hakata in 1975. During this period, efforts were made to improve service on the trains, including the introduction of dining cars. In urban areas, meanwhile, issues of noise and vibrations caused by passing trains, as well as wear and tear on tracks, arose as problems. Between 1974 and 1982, half-day service stoppages were periodically implemented to carry out inspections and overhauls of tracks to keep the shinkansen running smoothly. Residents living along tracks took their grievances over sound and vibrations to court, reaching an agreement with Japan National Railway in 1986 that led to the construction of barriers to reduce noise pollution, improved train design, and other measures.

Despite facing various difficulties over the years, the shinkansen has been a resounding success on all fronts, including passenger safety and business operations. The train’s outstanding track record has served to spur the development of similar technology around the world, specifically in Europe—as seen by France’s TGV, which began running in 1981, the introduction of Germany’s Inter-City Express in 1991, and other high-speed lines on the continent. In particular, the TGV, which debuted with a top speed of 270 km/h that dwarfed the shinkansen’s 210 km/h, reestablished France as the leader in high-speed train technology. Japan, not to be left behind, has diligently worked to increase train speeds, with the Tōhoku Shinkansen now capable of matching the TGV’s top speed of 320 km/h.

With an eye to building still faster trains, Japan has since 1962 been involved in developing a linear motor railway system utilizing superconducting magnetic levitation technology. In 1997, piloted tests of a maglev train succeeded in reaching 531 km/h. JR Central has unveiled plans to roll out the technology on its Chūō Shinkansen line, which is slated to begin service between Tokyo and Nagoya in 2027 and will feature a top speed of 505 km/h.

Exporting the Shinkansen

In recent years, the JR companies operating the various shinkansen lines have begun efforts to export system technology behind the high-speed trains. As part of this campaign, the companies have focused specifically on the bullet train’s impeccable ability to run on schedule and its unsurpassed safety record (in 50 years, there has never been a fatal derailment or collision).

Bullet train technology is already being put to use outside of Japan, including the construction of specialized tracks that are separate from existing train lines, centralized control systems for lines, and ATC, or Automatic Train Control, mechanisms to slow trains in case of emergencies. An example of this technology sharing can be seen in Taiwan’s high-speed service, also known as the Taiwan Shinkansen, which began service in 2007. Originally designed using European expertise, operators of the line turned to Japan’s ATC and other technologies, pointing to several derailments by ICE trains and a large earthquake that had struck the island. China as well, which introduced a high-speed line in 2007, designed carriages based in part on shinkansen cars. While no country has wholly imported Japan’s high-speed train system, a growing number of countries, such as the United States and India, have shown keen interest in developing their own lines using shinkansen technology.

The Past and Future of Japan’s Shinkansen

1939 The Japanese Government Railways draws up plans for a high-speed train line, with newspapers naming it the Dangan Ressha (bullet train) Project. If it had been realized, the line’s then radical switch to broad-gauge tracks would have allowed speeds of up to 160 km/h and connected Tokyo and Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi Prefecture in nine hours.  
1941 Construction begins on tunnels and other structures related to the project. Pacific War breaks out on December 8 (December 7 US time).
1943 Work on the project largely abandoned as the war progresses, with only one of the project’s two major tunnels being completed in 1944. (Both tunnels are eventually finished and used on the Tōkaidō Shinkansen line.)  
1945   On August 15, Japan surrenders, bringing an end to World War II.
1949 JNR, the Japanese National Railways, is established as a public corporation taking over the JGR networks.  
1957 JNR’s Railway Technical Research Institute draws broad public attention when it announces plans for a super express linking Tokyo and Osaka in 3 hours.  

In July, the Ministry of Transport’s research committee officially recommends to the transport minister construction of the Tōkaidō Shinkansen and the adoption of wide-gauge (1,435 mm) rails for the train.

In November, the limited express Kodama, a forerunner of the shinkansen service bearing the same name, makes its inaugural run. Travelling along the main Tōkaidō Line, the service makes the trip between Tokyo and Osaka in less than 7 hours.

In December, the Cabinet approves construction of the Tōkaidō Shinkansen.

1959 On April 20, ground is broken on the first shinkansen line. In May, Tokyo is chosen to host the 1964 Olympic Games.
1961 Construction of the shinkansen is helped along by an $80 million loan from the World Bank.  
1962 Shinkansen test track constructed in Kanagawa Prefecture. (The track was later included as part of the finished Tōkaidō Shinkansen line.)

RTRI begins research on a superconducting magnetic levitation linear motor railway system.

1964 On October 1, the Tōkaidō Shinkansen begins service between Tokyo and Osaka. The Tokyo Olympic Games get under way on October 10.
1967 Construction begins on the San’yō Shinkansen.  
1972 On March 15, the San’yō Shinkansen begins service between Osaka and Okayama.  
1974 Ground is broken on the Narita Shinkansen line. (The project is never completed.)  
1975 In March, the San’yō Shinkansen extends service to Hakata in Kyūshū.  
1977 Testing of the maglev linear motor railway begins at a track in Miyazaki Prefecture.  
1982 In June, the Tōhoku Shinkansen initiates service between Ōmiya and Morioka; the Jōetsu Shinkansen begins service between Ōmiya and Niigata.  
1983 Construction on the Narita Shinkansen is stopped due to ongoing protests against the line and the building of Narita Airport. The project is eventually abandoned in 1987, with sections later utilized by JR lines and Keisei Narita Sky Access.  
1985 In March, the Tōhoku and Jōetsu Shinkansen lines are extended to Ueno Station.  
1987 On April 1, JNR is privatized and broken into seven companies.  
1989 Construction begins on the Hokuriku Shinkansen.  
1991 In June, service on the Tōhoku and Jōetsu Shinkansen lines is extended to Tokyo Station.  
1992 In July, the Yamagata Shinkansen begins service between Fukushima and Yamagata.  
1996 Testing of the maglev linear motor railway begins at a track in Yamanashi Prefecture.  

In March, the Akita Shinkansen begins service between Morioka and Akita.

On October 1, the Hokuriku (Nagano) Shinkansen begins service between Takasaki and Nagano.

1998 Construction begins on the Kagoshima route of the Kyūshū Shinkansen. Nagano Winter Olympics held from February 7 to 22.
1999 On December 4, the Yamagata Shinkansen is extended to Shinjō.   
2002 On December 1, the Tōhoku Shinkansen is extended to Hachinohe.  
2004 On March 13, service begins between Yashio and Kagoshima on the Kagoshima route of the Kyūshū Shinkansen.  
2010 On December 4, service on the Tōhoku Shinkansen is extended to Aomori.  
2011 On March 12, service on the Kagoshima route of the Kyūshū Shinkansen is extended to Fukuoka.  
2012 Construction begins on Nagasaki route of Kyūshū Shinkansen.  
2014 On October 1, the Tōkaidō Shinkansen celebrates its fiftieth anniversary.  

On March 14, service on the Hokuriku Shinkansen to be extended to Kanazawa.

Construction to begin on the linear (maglev) Chūō Shinkansen.

2016 The Hokkaidō Shinkansen to begin service between Aomori and Hakodate.  
2020   Tokyo to host the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games.
2022 The Nagasaki route of the Kyūshū Shinkansen to begin service between Takeo Onsen and Nagasaki.  
2025 Service on the Hokuriku Shinkansen to be extended to Tsuruga.  
2027 The linear Chūō Shinkansen to begin service between Shinagawa and Nagoya.  
2035 Service on the Hokkaidō Shinkansen to be extended to Sapporo.  
2045 Service on the linear Chūō Shinkansen to be extended to Osaka.  


Shinkansen Top Speeds

1957 Odakyū Railway’s SE super express reaches 145 km/h during testing, setting the world record for narrow gauge (1,067 mm) rails.
1958 The limited express Kodama reaches 110 km/h on main Tōkaidō Line.
1959 The limited express Kodama reaches 163 km/h during testing.
1964 Tōkaidō Shinkansen reaches 210 km/h.
1979 Unmanned maglev train reaches 517 km/h during testing at the Miyazaki test track.
1982 Tōhoku and Jōetsu Shinkansens reach 210 km/h.
1985 Tōhoku Shinkansen reaches 240 km/h.
1986 Tōkaidō and San’yō Shinkansens reach 220 km/h.
1990 Jōetsu Shinkansen reaches 275 km/h.
1992 Tōhoku Shinkansen reaches 275 km/h.
Tōkaidō Shinkansen reaches 270 km/h.
1993 San’yō Shinkansen reaches 270 km/h.
1995 Manned maglev train reaches 411 km/h during testing at the Miyazaki test track.
1997 San’yō Shinkansen reaches 300km/h.

Manned maglev train reaches 531 km/h and unmanned train reaches 550 km/h during testing at the Yamanashi track.

2011 Tōhoku Shinkansen reaches 300 km/h.
2013 Tōhoku Shinkansen reaches 320 km/h.
2015 Tōkaidō Shinkansen speed to be raised to 285 km/h.
2027 Linear Chūō Shinkansen to travel at 505 km/h.


(Banner photo: Opening ceremony for the Tōkaidō Shinkansen at Tokyo Station on October 1, 1964. © Jiji Press.)

  • [2014.10.01]
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