Why This Train Is The Envy Of The World: The Shinkansen Story

In 1964, Japan unveiled the Shinkansen – a new high speed railway connecting the country’s two largest cities (in the 1960’s), Tokyo and Osaka. Travelling at speeds in excess of 120 mph (200 km/h), the new specially designed Shinkansen trains had the highest service speeds in the world.

But the Shinkansen project’s success had been anything but assured. Over five years of construction, the cost of building the Shinkansen had ballooned, nearly doubling over the original estimate to nearly ¥400 Billion. Vocal critics within Japan dismissed the Shinkansen project as destined for failure. Only a year before the new line opened, the director-general of the Japanese National Railways Construction Department described it as the “height of madness”. In particular, he criticized the decision to use a wider gauge track (standard gauge), which would make the Shinkansen incompatible with the rest of Japan’s narrow gauge network.

Outside of Japan, observers looked on with a mixture of curiosity and skepticism. The 1960’s was the age of the jet airliner and automobile. Many countries in the west were focusing on infrastructure projects to accommodate the enormous growth of both these forms of transportation. The United States in particular, was pouring billions of dollars into building new interstate highways and country’s rail network was actually shrinking. Railways were seen as simply too slow and inconvenient to compete with automobiles and aircraft. Many predicted that passenger trains would be extinct or near-extinct by the end of the 20th century.

But the opening of the Shinkansen changed the way the world viewed railways. The Shinkansen demonstrated that trains were capable of being the fastest mode of travel for intercity trips (faster than automobile and air travel). The Shinkansen was the fastest way to travel the 320 miles (515 km) distance from Tokyo to Osaka when total door-door travel times were taken into account. Within just the first 3 years, the Shinkansen carried more than 100 million passengers.

The Japanese helped inspire other countries to develop their own high speed networks, like France’s TGV which entered service in the early 1980’s. The enormous success of the original Shinkansen line spurred the construction of new Shinkansen lines westward. Over the course of the next half century, the network would be expanded to reach nearly every corner of Japan.

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