Shinkansen At 50: Lessons From The Bullet Train

The stunning Shinkansen 500W1
It's hard to believe that Japan's Bullet Train is fifty years old. The technical tour de force that thrust Japan to the front of the race for a high speed rail service pre-dates the rise of the Japanese electronics and auto industries and, even though it is no longer the fastest or biggest high speed rail network, it remains the exemplar service for rapid movement of passengers.

In those fifty years the Bullet Train has been running there have been ten billion passenger rides completed, with a perfect safety record. (In fact injuries on the Bullet Train, and the only fatality, are as a result of people getting stuck in the doors) Compare that to other rail networks and you'll appreciate the scale of the achievement.

The decision to invest in the infrastructure necessary for this cost effective, reliable and safe service was made in the fifties and work started on building the network in 1959. The same year that Britain opened its first motorway section, the M6 near Preston. In terms of value for money, Japan has clearly derived more benefits from it's investment.

Environmentally the Bullet Train has proved to be a great success, a journey on the Tokyo-Osaka line generates just 16% of the CO2 of the same journey by car. That 500km (300m) journey can be completed in just over two hours. Food for thought for those demanding more road capacity.

The Bullet Train network is being expanded and new technology being planned to improve performance. Sections of the future Chuo line between Tokyo and Osaka are being used to test mag-lev trains, with speeds of 500km/h (300mph) being reached on the 48km test section.

Despite the fairly harsh environments that the Shinkansen faces (earthquakes, tsunami, snow storms) it's record is excellent. It is hard to see why countries like the US and Australia, with large distances to cover and wide open spaces to traverse, haven't yet cottoned on to the long term benefits of high speed rail. Even Europe, with its much greater population density has a better grasp of where rail sits in an integrated transport system. As countries like India, Brazil and Vietnam plan their future around high speed rail links, so those countries that shun the technology fall further behind.