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Image © 2021 Central Japan Railway Company

Shinkansen Bullet Train

History in the making

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Image © 2021 Central Japan Railway Company

The Shinkansen, commonly known in English as the ‘bullet train’, is an icon of Japanese design and technology. From the moment of its unveiling in autumn 1964 – just ten days before the opening of the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games – the Shinkansen programme has transformed the Japanese economy, rail technology and travel; in Japan as well as abroad.   

Big ambitions 

Construction began in Japan on a new high-speed railway, known as the Shinkansen (‘New Main Line’), in April 1959 on 515km (320 miles) of track between Tokyo and Osaka. The plan was to implement electrified trains that could reach 210kph (130mph) on a dedicated, wider-gauge track (matching American and European standard gauges) that was free of level crossings – a concept that has since spread to high-speed rail in other countries. Safety would be further enhanced by a ground-breaking Automatic Train Control (ATC) system that automatically activated the brakes if a train exceeded the permitted speed. (This has since played a significant role in maintaining the Shinkansen’s peerless safety record of no train accident-related fatalities since operations commenced.) The aim was to complete this extraordinary feat of civil engineering and technology in just five years, in order to unveil the Shinkansen to the world during the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games. Staff united around the slogan, “Be in time for the Olympics”. 

An icon is born 

The first commercial Shinkansen train – the ‘Series 0’ Hikari – glided out of Tokyo Station, Platform 19, on 1 October 1964, as, not only the fastest and most advanced train in the world, but also the most striking. The train’s bullet-shaped nose cone became an instant design icon, while the ivory and blue livery – a colour combination never before used on Japanese trains – served as a visual indicator of its inherent safety features.

“Most Japanese express trains used red at that time, but as the Shinkansen did not have level crossings and there was no possibility of a crash, they didn’t need to use cautionary colours such as red and yellow,” explains Ueno Naoyuki, General Manager of the London Office of the Central Japan Railway Company (JR Central). Moreover, as the Shinkansen relied on electric, rather than friction brakes, there was no possibility of the gleaming ivory being dirtied by iron powders from the brake-pads.

A legendary journey  

Following the historic Tōkaidō – the well-travelled road between Edo and Kyoto – the Tōkaidō Shinkansen was constructed following a similar route out of Tokyo, but on elevated steel and concrete viaducts, gliding over suburban roads and railways and through new tunnels. All along the route passengers could see the magnificent sights that can still be enjoyed by travellers to this day: the coastline between Odawara and Atami, the tea plantations of Shizuoka and the five-storied pagoda at the Buddhist temple Tō-ji in Kyoto. Images of this futuristic train against a backdrop of the journey’s highlight, snow-capped Mt Fuji, captivated a generation.

“My parents used the Shinkansen for their honeymoon in 1969, and I remember travelling on it for a school trip to Kyoto at the age of 12,” recalls Ueno, who became a Shinkansen driver in 1996. “I was proud to be a driver of the Tōkaidō Shinkansen. The Tōkaidō route has [always] been the most important and busiest in Japan; I felt we were responsible for the most important artery of Japan.”

The need for speed 

The first ‘Series 0’ Hikari bullet train completed its 515-km (320-mile) journey between Tokyo and Osaka in just 4 hours, shattering the previous travel time of 6 hours 30 minutes, transforming domestic travel, and driving economic growth in the decade that followed. The 2020 ‘Series N700S’ Nozomi covers the distance in 2 hours 22 minutes, and the Shinkansen network has grown to over 2,997km (1,863 miles) countrywide. The Shinkansen programme pioneered new technologies that enabled its trains to reach previously unimaginable speeds, in comfort and peace. These included redesigned pantograph gantries (which held electricity cables) that minimized noise, and rails welded in long sections of hundreds of metres to reduce vibrations. The train, being designed for speed, was equipped with a low centre of gravity. All of the component parts were made in Japan, prompting the Tōkaidō Shinkansen to be declared ‘the product of the wisdom and effort of the Japanese people’.

Innovation, innovation, innovation

Subsequent trains evolved from the ‘Series 0’, with one of the most significant developments being the 1992 ‘Series 300’ shift from a steel frame to one made of aluminium extrusion alloys. This reduced the body weight and noise, and facilitated speeds of up to 270kph. Carriages were pressurized for comfort and a body-inclining (tilting) system was installed, smoothing out the Tōkaidō line’s numerous curves.

Each new iteration came with adjustments to the nose cone, largely to reduce the build-up of micro air-pressure waves rather than for speed or aesthetics. The iconic bullet shape then became a ‘duckbill’, and, most recently, the sharper nose of the 2020 ‘Series N700S’. This design significantly reduced the unneighbourly problem of micro air-pressure waves that rattled locals’ windows as the trains entered tunnels. The ‘Series N700S’ is the first high-speed train to incorporate a battery-based propulsion system, with a large-capacity battery that can keep it operating in the event of an emergency.

The network spreads

Technological innovations also address issues specific to individual Shinkansen routes, which now criss-cross the country from Hokkaido to Kyushu. As the Tōkaidō Shinkansen runs through densely populated areas, which have stringent noise regulations, JR Central continues to develop lighter trains that generate less noise. Lighter trains also consume less energy, and so this development aligns with the necessity for green innovation. The ‘Series N700S’, which features energy-efficient semiconductors in its drive system and network-first LED headlights, consumes less than half the energy of the original ‘Series 0’, and one eighth of the energy and one twelfth of the CO2 emissions of air travel. Aluminium alloys from decommissioned trains are recycled into interior parts, such as luggage racks, for new rolling stock.  

The future in the making 

“People all over the world recognize the Shinkansen as a pioneer of high-speed rail,” says Ueno, “but at the same time, we need to further enhance the Shinkansen so we can maintain trust and meet the expectations of people around the world.”

With that in mind, the next eagerly awaited project is the Chūō Shinkansen, the maglev (magnetic levitation) system, being developed by JR Central, which is expected to begin operations in 2027. The technology was being developed as early as 1962, and testing on a designated line has seen trains reach speeds of 500kph (310mph). The Chūō Shinkansen will connect Tokyo with Japan’s fourth largest city, Nagoya, 286km (178 miles) away, in just 40 minutes, bringing its 2.3 million residents within commuting distance by train of the capital for the first time.

The legacy of the first bullet train in 1964 lives on in the latest rail transport innovations for the new system. “It will definitely change our lives”, Ueno concludes. “It will boost the Japanese economy and make our life more convenient and comfortable”.