The Tokaido Shinkansen Line is set to mark its 50th anniversary in October, having carried more than 5.5 billion passengers since its 1964 debut.

“We would like to put special emphasis on this milestone year,” declared Koei Tsuge after assuming the presidency of Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai), the operator of the line, in April.

The project to build the bullet train line started in April 1959 during the postwar high-growth period and was completed in just over five years. It went smoothly thanks to a project nicknamed “dangan ressha” (bullet train) before the start of the Pacific War. The project aimed to link Tokyo to Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, a distance of 970 km, by rail in less than nine hours.

Although dangan ressha was suspended during the war, the right of way acquired for the project and completed tunnels helped facilitate development of the shinkansen.

The Tokaido Shinkansen Line began operating between Tokyo and Osaka on Oct. 1, 1964, nine days before the start of Tokyo Olympics. It drastically improved the transportation capacity of the Tokaido Line, which was nearing its limit, and carried more than 100 million people in its first three years.

Prompting the movement of people, goods and capital, the shinkansen served as a locomotive of Japan’s economic growth from the 1960s. When the World Exposition was held in Osaka in 1970, some 10 million of its 60 million visitors reportedly got there by bullet train.

The shinkansen not only became the foundation of Japan’s economic growth by linking Tokyo and Osaka, but also gave hope to the Japanese public as a symbol of postwar recovery from “burned-out ruins,” said Satoshi Fujii, a professor at Kyoto University’s Department of Urban Development.

The shinkansen has live up to its “3S” slogan for speed, safety and stability created by Hideo Shima, chief engineer of the project.

There have been no fatal accidents involving the bullet train network despite operating at speeds of up to 270 kph. The trains are also known for sticking to their timetable. In fiscal 2013, delays of scheduled arrivals averaged only about 50 seconds per train.

“Safety is the absolute requirement, unsurpassed by anything else, and will remain so forever,” said Hiroshi Suda, 83, who served as the first president of JR Tokai for eight years following its establishment through the 1987 breakup of the Japanese National Railways.

The shinkansen network now extends from Aomori in the north to Kagoshima in the south.

The Hokuriku Shinkansen Line, which runs between Tokyo and Nagano, is due to be extended to Kanazawa by the end of fiscal 2014, while construction is under way to build a new bullet train line in Hokkaido. Another major project aims to connect Fukuoka and Nagasaki on the Kyushu Shinkansen Line.

This fall, JR Tokai is expected to begin construction of a magnetically levitated (maglev) train line to connect Tokyo and Nagoya in about 40 minutes, compared with the current 100 minutes or so by the shinkansen.

JR Tokai hopes to someday export the Chuo Shinkansen maglev technology to the United States and other countries.

The maglev technology will “bring revolutionary changes to the 21st century as did the Tokaido Shinkansen 50 years ago,” said Yoshiyuki Kasai, honorary chairman of JR Tokai. “It will contribute to a new lifestyle in the world.”

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