Bullet Train!

My first experience on a Shinkansen was during my first visit to Japan in 1987. At that time, the train in service was called the “100 Series”, and had a kind of frumpy looking front end, like the Douglas DC-6 airliners of the 40’s and 50’s, yet looked futuristic compared to the diesel-electric engines of Amtrak at the time. I took it from Nagoya to Tokyo, and later from Tokyo North to Koriyama. As I recall, there was a digital display at the end of each car indicating the speed, which reached 200 kph (124 mph). As a private pilot, I get uncomfortable in a car that goes faster than say, 60 mph. At that speed it is time to start pulling back on the stick to “slip the surly bounds of earth” pull up the gear and “join the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds”. To stay on terra firma at such speeds, where other, stationary objects are close by – or worse, objects traveling in the opposite direction - intuitively seems suicidal (and I think the annual highway death toll bears this out). But the ride on this train was smoother than air and I soon focused on the view in the distance and tried to forget about the trains passing the other way every several minutes.

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I was fascinated with Japan on that trip – still am – and thoroughly enjoyed the ride. The overhead played Japanese folk tunes while in the station. After we were underway, a young woman came down the isle with a cart, calling “obento, kohi, ocha, ikaga desu ka?” – “How about a box lunch, coffee, or tea”? When she reached the end of the car, she turned, bowed, and said, “domo arigatou gozaimashita” – Thank you very much. That has not changed over the years. Quite a difference from the (mis)treatment we have become accustomed to on US airlines. The ride is smoother than any other form of transport I've been on. The reclining seats are large with plenty of leg room. The view is good and it is very quiet. I was sold on the trains on my first ride. If you have luggage, you need to bring it on the train with you, but I found enough room in front of my seat to put a suitcase sideways, with my feet to one side. There are also usually luggage spaces at the end of each car also overhead storage for smaller items.

The “Bullet Trains” of Japan are called Shinkansen locally, which means “New Trunk Line.” The term acutally refers to the routes themselves, but people commonly call the trains by that name. The service now runs nearly the full length of Japan’s main islands, from Kyushu in the South West to Northern Honshu. One day, Japan’s “mini-Alaska”, the Nothern island of Hokkaido, may have a station as well.

A response to the booming economy of the 60’s and beyond, and the need to move millions of people efficiently at high speed, the Shinkansen system required dedicated lines, which meant buying up real estate. Unlike America’s transcontinental rail system, which struck out across new territories, Japan’s Shinkansen lines needed to buy land that was already developed. Naturally, this led to political squabbles over the routes. Farmers, whose land would be used, suddenly had a political power that they did not possess before. The national politics of Japan was greatly influenced by this with a significant shift of power out to rural prefectures.

In the summer of 2003, K and I went to the Japan Alps for hiking and sight seeing. I may write about that trip in a future post. I can only compare the beauty of the scenery of Kamikochi National Park to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado – breathtakingly beautiful. On that trip we took an express bus to get there and the Asama Shinkansen from Nagano (home to the 1988 Winter Olympics) back into Tokyo. The service on the Asama was comparable to my first ride, but the speed was faster and there were miles of tunnel to traverse. This train is special, as it must climb steep grades at high speeds on its way up from Tokyo even in heavy snow. Hurling through LONG, black tunnels at speeds up to 260 kph – 161 mph - is a bit disconcerting for one accustomed to the “wild blue yonder”, but I was awed by the technology that made it possible. With the blackness out the window, one could easily believe that the mode of travel was by jet plane at night, without any turbulence. Out in the open the views are quite good, as the tracks are elevated. There are no grade crossings on any of these lines for obvious reasons.

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Asama Shinkansen in Winter

The views can be beautiful, such as when passing fishing villages, farms, or viewing Mt. Fuji. But riding from Tokyo to Osaka, one can also see that much of central Japan is one vast urban corridor as is much of the so-called “first world”. It brings back my youth in the San Fernando Valley of Southern California, where the fields and orange groves and rolling grasslands dotted with oaks gradually succumbed to that ignorant paradigm called “suburbia” until everything beautiful was devoured by asphalt. “Pave paradise, put up a parking lot”, as Jonnie Mitchell sang. Sigh. By the way, I highly recommend that you watch the documentary titled "The End of Suburbia", which is a wake up call to our global energy situation.

In March of 2004, we boarded a brand new Nozomi 700 Series Shinkansen in Tokyo station and flew to Kyoto. Well, we never left the rails, but it sure as hell seemed like we were flying! The front of this train looks like a Ferrari and goes so fast that the track actually banks around curves so that your coffee doesn’t slosh out of the cup. We’re talking a top speed 300 kph now – 186 mph. Older trains are still in service. We rode a Hikari Shinkansen from Kyoto to Nagoya as part of the return trip that year. The older trains run at slightly slower speeds and make more stops. There is a premium for the Nozomi tickets, and Japan Rail Pass is not accepted, but as I am a resident and don't qualify for the Rail Pass anyway, it was worth the extra cost to ride the fastest. While France and Japan have vied for 1st place in the fast train catagory, at present the Nozomi 700 is the fastest scheduled passenger train in the world, based on average speed between stations. Not to dimish France's technology - their train is fast, but is rarely on time as it has to share the track with slower trains. C'est la vie.

Not fast enough for you? They keep working on going faster. To go faster, trains need to be light and powerful, things that work against each other. The shinkansen cars of the 60's weighed 20 tons, today's just 6 tons due to construction that uses an extruded aluminum skin which is only 1.8mm thick, and radically different electric motors that are much lighter as well. The next generation to enter service in 2007 will be a little faster and will have cars that tilt into the turns and an air cushioned ride. They will use only a third of the energy that their counterparts of 25 years ago used. But to get up to speeds much above 300 kph will require some new technology, as at higher speeds, the train does not maintain enough pressure on the track for the wheels to be able to get traction for acceleration or braking (i.e. it really is flying!). The anwswer may be maglev trains which float on a magnetic field and would be capable of 500 kph, but the cost of such machines could prove to be prohibitive.

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The older model 100 on the left, newer Nozomi 500 on the right

Now days, the cost of living in Osaka and Tokyo are so high that people actually commute on the Shinkansen. Efficiency? Well, to move those people with cars would be impossible, but assuming it could be done would cost ten times as much and produce ten times the CO2 emissions. In addition, trains are electric, so are flexible with regard to how that energy is produced: oil, gas, nuclear, coal, wind, hydro, solar, whatever, will do. That matters a lot in a country that imports 90% of its energy. Japan Rail has recently developed the world's first hybrid rail car as well - not a Shinkansen, but a sign that Japanese train techonology is not about to stand still.

Over the course of their forty year history, there has never been a fatality on the Shinkansen lines. Amazing, when one considers that they have carried over 6 billion passengers, and now serve 90 million people each year. Computers connected to laser sensors by the tracks monitor the trains and if a problem is detected they automatically slow or even stop the train. Earthquakes are also carefully monitored of course. Last year, during a devastating earthquake in Niigata Prefecture, North of Tokyo, a Shinkansen train going 210 kph was derailed (the first time that has ever happened). The driver hit the emergency brake and they came to a stop on the rail bed without anyone being injured.

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The fastest - Nozomi 700 at Nagoya station - VROOOM!

During the day, a Shinkansen train leaves Tokyo every few minutes – as many as 15 trains per hour - with up to 1634 passengers on each train. While obviously much slower than a jet airplane, the trip from Tokyo to Kyoto only takes 2 hours and twenty minutes by Nozomi (the train is limited to 110 kph near Tokyo for noise abbatement). There is no time taken up with check-in, security screening, and boarding everyone through one door, so it works out to be nearly as fast as flying a similar distance, and much less hassle. You buy your ticket at a machine, go to the platform and step into the train. And unlike airports, train stations are in the heart of the cities. But you need to be punctual. The trains run precisely on time, the average delay per train is only 6 seconds. You can literally set your watch by them. And mind your stop. Except for end terminals, you'll only have a minute or so to get on or off the train. Japan is a VERY busy place, as the paint scheme on the side of the trains conveys - "Ambitious Japan".

So, if you are planning a visit to Japan, get a rail pass before you come. The train announcements now are in English as well as Japanese, and help is available at the stations. Take a ride on the Japan Rail (JR) Shinkansen lines. It is truly a technological marvel and definitely an experience you won't soon forget.


Anonymous said...

Very informative. Nozomi looks like a duck, though.

Pandabonium said...

A duck? Maybe so. I hope it doesn't have a "quack up".

The Moody Minstrel said...

Ah, the Shinkansen! I've traveled on it many times, sometimes on a school trip with a whole bunch of students, sometimes for a convention of some kind, and occasionally just for the fun of it. I never get tired of the ride or the view.

The only thing that does bug me is the fact that in the overwhelming majority of my trips, Mt. Fuji was caught behind clouds and quite invisible.

I felt like I should get a refund or something...

Pandabonium said...

I'm hip. I have seen Mt. Fuji on two trips, but never like the postcards show it. Always hazy. And where do they find an open field for the foreground?

Still, its the "only way to fly" - at least in Japan.