Happy 50th Birthday To Japan’s Fastest Bullet Train!


1 Ceremonial launch of 1964 shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka

Ceremonial launch of 1964 shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka. Photo:

Central Japan Railway (JR Tokai) celebrated the 50th anniversary of the country’s first shinkansen “bullet train”, in a ceremony at Tokyo’s central station. Company workers and guests were in attendance as the N700A, the company’s newest high-speed rail train, took off for Fukuoka on Wednesday, Oct. 1st.

Similar celebrations have taken place in the central cities Shizuoka and Nagoya, as well as in the western city of Osaka.

Hikari No. 1, the first shinkansen train on the Tokaido line, took off from Tokyo to Shin-Osaka at precisely 5:59 am on October 1st 1964, less than a week and a half before the start of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. It was the first commercial train line to achieve speeds of more than 200kph, making it the fastest train in the world at the time (Shanghai maglev is currently the world’s fastest train, clocking in at 267.8 mph). The journey, which took nearly seven hours to complete on traditional rail lines, cut the trip down significantly to only four hours, reaching a maximum speed of 210 kph (130.49 mph).

Shinkansen Japan Fuji Mountain

Bullet Train passing in front of Mt. Fuji in Japan – Alamy via Photo:

The same trip in today’s trains takes only 2 hours and 25 minutes to complete, reaching a maximum speed of 270 kph. By the spring of 2015, the maximum speed is expected to reach 285 kph.

The Tokaido Shinkansen line connects eastern and western Japan along the Eastern Sea Route (this was the main trading route from Edo, or old Tokyo, to the western cities of Kyoto and Osaka for centuries), which soon become a symbol of the country’s postwar recovery following World War II. Since 1964, the train line has traveled more than 2 billion kilometers, equivalent to circumnavigating the earth more than 50,000 times.

In its inaugural year, the shinkansen (literally meaning “new trunk line”) averaged just over 60,000 passengers a day, a figure which has grown sevenfold to 424,000 daily passengers in 2013. The Tokaido Shinkansen line, for instance operates 323 train a day, while collecting more than 140 million fares a year.

3 Couple saying goodbye as Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train departs from Tokyo

Couple saying goodbye as Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train departs from Tokyo. Photo: Kimimasa via

Impressively, the shinkansen rail lines have carried more than 10 billion passengers in its history without a single derailment or death. Though one person has died and several others sustained injuries when automatic doors closed on them, not to mention several reports of people committing suicide by jumping in front of trains.

Historically, high-speed rail in Japan can be traced back to imperial Japan in the late 1930s, when the government set their sights on high-speed rail to supply provisions to their troops on the front lines in China and Manchuria. Initially, these plans included an undersea tunnel to connect Japan and Korea, with a projected line running to Singapore. Though the Japanese Parliament approved the ¥556 million ($5 million) budget, the project was ultimately halted as the events of World War II eventually turned against Japan. By June of 1944, the plans were officially canceled, until renewed interest revived the project in the 1950s.

By 2027, JR Tokai plans to bring a maglev (shortened version of “magnetic-levitation”) train into full service, linking Tokyo and Nagoya in just 40 minutes, with trains projected to reach a maximum speed of 500 kph (310 mph). This new generation of high-speed rail (being built 40 meters, or 131 feet, below ground) uses magnetic pulses to propel the train at exceptionally high speeds. Lacking wheels, axles and bearings, these trains run on rubber wheels until it reaches 100kph, after which the train will hover approximately 10 cm above the line allowing less friction, resulting in a smoother, much quieter ride.

The plan is to unveil this new train in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

4 Crown prince Naruhito on board a Shinkansen bullet train in 1968

Crown prince Naruhito on board a Shinkansen bullet train in 1968. Photo: Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

Jerry Leon contributor profile



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