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How to travel fast in Japan with its narrow geography: bullet trains


Today’s high-speed trains will have you cruising along at 350 kilometres per hour.

A ticket is about the same as a flight,and the door-to-door time on some of the world’s most popular routes is the same, or less than getting a plane.

But decades ago rail travel was in decline.It faced fierce competition from the air and auto industries.Then came Japan's bullet train.

By the late 1950s, Japan’s economic miracle had transformed the war ravaged nation.Its economy was growing quickly.The area between Tokyo and Osaka was booming with industry.People were flocking to the capital for work but the rail line connecting the two major cities couldn’t take the stress.

In 1958, a government panel was set up to tackle the problem and several potential solutions arose.Among them, building the world’s first high-speed rail line.Many were skeptical, but two men were true believers.Shinji Sogō was the then president of the state-run Japanese National Railways.The other, Sogō’s colleague, veteran engineer Hideo Shima.Up against bureaucratic obstacles and fierce opposition - the two drove the project forward.

In 1959, the Tōkaidō Shinkansen line started construction under Sogō’s leadership. Shima was appointed the project’s chief engineer.His team designed the sleek and revolutionary cone-shaped front -from which the bullet train got its name.Rather than being pulled by an engine in front,each carriage of the bullet train was driven by an individual electric motor,which has proven to be safer, faster and more efficient.

Apart from the train itself, the team also built wider tracks,which were more costly but allowed for greater stability and higher speeds.3,000 bridges and 67 tunnels were built on the 515-kilometer line to allow a clear and largely curveless path.

Older trains were banned from the new line.Equipped with advanced technologies, the new trains were able to travel as fast as 210 kilometers per hour,a breakthrough in the passenger rail industry and the world’s fastest at the time.

The journey time between Tokyo and Osaka was cut from over 6 hours to 4.On October 1, 1964, the new line opened,just in time for the Tokyo Olympic Games.But neither Sogō’ nor Shima were invited for the inauguration.They both resigned in 1963 because the project’s budget came in at double what was promised -400 billion yen, the equivalent of 3.6 billion US dollars today.

But despite their premature departure,the Tōkaidō Shinkansen line was an immediate success and quickly turned a profit.It transformed the nation -allowing more people to work in metropolitan areas and became a symbol of Japan’s postwar re-emergence as an economic and tech power.

Now over 300 trains operate on the line everyday.And the trip between Tokyo and Osaka has shortened to two and a half hours.The number of passengers has also soared,reaching 165 million in 2016.

After the success of the Tōkaidō Shinkanse line,Japan has continued expanding its high-speed rail network and plans to build more.Following Japan’s lead, countries like France, Germany and China have also developed high-speed railways.

By the end of 2018, the total length of high-speed rail network in the world will be over 46,000 kilometers,and over half of it is in China.