Oct. 1 will be the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of the shinkansen super-express trains. The shinkansen has become the envy of the world, studied, imitated and emulated, but never quite matched. Though the younger generation may take it as a given, the “bullet train” will continue to be an important part of Japanese life and society in the future.
The service has continued to work well. The overall average delay, according to Central Japan Railway, is an astoundingly low 0.6 minute. The Tokaido Shinkansen has maintained a flawless record of no passenger fatalities or injuries due to train accidents. Even with competition from airlines, which have taken the market share for travel distances over four hours, the shinkansen remains punctual, clean, efficient and reasonably affordable.
Nowadays, the travel time between Tokyo and Osaka is just two hours and 25 minutes, down from the original four hours. The Tokaido Shinkansen, which is not only the country’s but the world’s busiest high-speed line, offers 323 trains per day carrying an average of 391,000 passengers per day. Up to 13 trains per hour run between Tokyo and Osaka.
The nickname “bullet train” was given to the project when it was first discussed in the late 1930s and early 1940s, with vast plans to extend lines underwater into Korea and China. World War II put a stop to those ambitious dreams, but by the mid-1950s, plans were firmly in place to build a national service. Increasing the speed meant building dedicated lines, since most train lines at that time took indirect routes through mountainous terrain. Rather than letting air travel take over, Japan National Railways pushed forward with high-speed rail in the late 1950s. The country should be glad it did.
Trains may not always appear to be a profit-maker, but the effects on GDP and the environment are enormous. Because trains are relatively energy efficient and are low polluters, the 50 years of service have produced much fewer bad effects than if all the passengers had been taking airplanes, buses or cars all that time.
Many critics argue that the shinkansen contributes to increased density in large urban centers. However, it has brought the country together in a way that television never could. The bullet trains allow citizens in outlying areas to travel to Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka for cultural offerings, shopping and business opportunities. Families can visit frequently and tourism in many places depends entirely on the shinkansen.
France, South Korea, Taiwan and China have launched their own high-speed railways, and Japan continues to extend lines in Nagano, Hokkaido and Kyushu. Japan’s shinkansen remains the first and arguably the best. What modern Japan would be like without the shinkansen is impossible to imagine. Happy 50th anniversary!