Grand bullet train system sought as expansion threatens slow, parallel routes


The shinkansen not only supported the spectacular postwar economic recovery, it also contributed to the development of high-speed rail systems in other countries.

Following the launch of the Tokaido Shinkansen Line in 1964, the bullet train network expanded into other regions, including Tohoku and Kyushu. Next spring, the Hokkaido Shinkansen Line is set to go into service, finally linking Honshu with Hokkaido.

While the shinkansen has dramatically changed Japan’s way of life, questions linger about its impact, including whether other railways in less-populated areas that run parallel to bullet train lines should be scrapped or allowed to remain, a problem often raised in association with shinkansen projects.

Some experts point to the need to draw up a grand design for the nation’s transportation systems so that people in all areas can have a secure means of transport.

The project to construct the Tokaido Shinkansen Line, the first bullet train service, was first publicized in May 1957. The former Japanese National Railways announced an ambitious plan to link Tokyo and Osaka in only three hours by rail at a lecture held by a JNR-affiliated research institute.

Satoru Sone, 76, professor at Kogakuin University, attended the lecture as a third-year high school student.

“The travel time between the two cities by rail was about to be shortened to six hours and 50 minutes in 1958 with the launch of the JNR’s Kodama limited express train. But the JNR told us we would be able to travel from Tokyo to Osaka in three hours. This was utterly amazing,” Sone said.

The media also touted the shinkansen as a “dream superexpress,” while not a few people were beginning to think the railway era had ended as automobiles and aircraft were coming into wider use.

Still, construction on the Tokaido Shinkansen Line began in April 1959. Soon after that, Tokyo was picked as the host of the 1964 Olympics, and the pace of construction was accelerated to ensure its launch before the quadrennial sporting event.

The bullet train line opened on Oct. 1, 1964, just before the Olympic Games kicked off on Oct. 10.

At the start, the Hikari train could only make the trip between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka stations in four hours. That was shortened to three hours and 10 minutes in 1965.

Hiroshi Suda, 84, an adviser at Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai), one of the six passenger arms of the Japan Railways Group, which was born from the April 1987 privatization of the JNR, was an official at the state-run railway when the line opened.

On Oct. 1, 1964, he watched the departure of the first shinkansen on TV at his office.

Suda was anxious whether punctual service could be offered because full-scale test runs took place for only two months. But the first train arrived on schedule.

Suda said: “I remember somebody in the office shouted, ‘The first Tokaido Shinkansen trains in both directions arrived at their destinations on time.’ Another said, ‘Yes!’ People shook hands with one another.”

The project cost ¥380 billion.

The Tokaido Shinkansen Line is now managed by JR Tokai.

The fastest train on the line currently links Tokyo and Shin-Osaka in two hours and 22 minutes, traveling at a maximum speed of 285 kph. As of March 2014, the daily number of passengers averaged about 424,000.

The birth of the Tokaido Shinkansen Line symbolized Japan’s recovery from World War II both at home and abroad.

The first train on the line, the Series 0, could hit 210 kph and was the fastest in the world at the time.

The success of the shinkansen brought competition from other countries, notably France and Germany, which already had sophisticated railway technologies.

As a result, the shinkansen eventually lost its edge in speed.

But it still has an unrivaled safety record. In the more than half century since its launch, no collisions or derailments involving a Tokaido or other shinkansen train has led to the death or injury of a passenger.

Improvements in speed and number of trains would gradually follow, allowing Japan to develop in new ways.

“The shinkansen has drastically changed the flows of people and the way of work,” said House of Representatives member Masahito Moriyama, 61, who was a former transport ministry official. Moriyama noted that one-day business trips have become commonplace and the number of people traveling within Japan has increased.

“The shinkansen was able to make great contributions to the rapid postwar economic expansion because people used it efficiently,” said JR Tokai’s Suda. “The Tokaido Shinkansen project was a tough decision, but we’re sure about its success.”

The success of the project led to the expansion of the bullet train network.

In March, the Nagano-Kanazawa section of the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line debuted with great fanfare.

Many areas meanwhile hope to receive bullet train service.

But Sone of Kogakuin University warned against thinking that “things will perhaps go well in other areas because the Tokaido Shinkansen service proved successful.”

When new shinkansen services launch, existing train lines that run parallel to the bullet train lines — especially in less densely populated areas — tend to be spun off from JR operations. In many of these cases, services are scaled back, inconveniencing the people who were using them.

Rural rail lines are also being abandoned as the population shrinks and ages. Some railways are trying to survive by introducing tourist-oriented trains. But these efforts are not a fundamental solution to the challenges they face.

Moriyama said the government has a certain role to play in railway policy.

“Now is the time for the state to draw up a grand design that covers the shinkansen, conventional trains and . . . maglev ultrahigh-speed trains,” he emphasized, referring to the scheduled debut of magnetically levitated trains.