The shinkansen is known to so many people outside of Japan, which is no surprise. The shinkansen is always on the front line of train development, not just the fastest but some of the most comfortable trains you will ever take. The first shinkansen line, the Tokaido Shinkansen, was launched in 1964, making it over 50 years old! Originally with just 320 miles of track the shinkansen now criss cross Japan on over 1,600 miles of high-speed networks.
Before the shinkansen networks were built, Japan used small gauge train lines to weave in and around the mountains which separated the cities and villages across Japan. This meant that the existing lines could not be used for high-speed trains due to the winding nature of the existing routes. Therefore to speed up travel times and unify the different areas in Japan the shinkansen was envisioned as a plausible idea. Initial construction began in 1959 to build a high-speed rail link between Tokyo and Osaka. The line, called Tokaido, was opened in 1964 just in time for the Tokyo Olympics! The shinkansen was so popular that in just three years over 100 million people had travelled on it! The first trains reached impressive speeds of 125 mph, and some of these trains are even still used today 50 years later. In order to keep the shinkansen running smoothly all tracks shut between midnight and 6am for maintenance, which also means the shinkansen routes are designated solely for passenger transport.
You may have heard that being on time is very important in Japan, in fact if your Tokyo Metro subway train is delayed by more than 5 minutes you can receive a card to give to your manager to explain for your lateness! Of course train conductors for the shinkansen also view being on time as very important; in fact taking into account all accidents and emergencies the shinkansen has a track record of still being almost exactly on time. On average a shinkansen will arrive within 6 seconds of the scheduled time, that’s close enough to not even notice! But it is not just punctuality that is impressive about the shinkansen, some of the trains themselves are 1/4 of a mile long! The newest shinkansen, the Maglev has just set a new speed record of 603 km/h, making it the fastest train in the world! The speed of the train isn’t the only thing that is quick; as how the trains are cleaned is as well. When the shinkansen reaches its destination station, to save time, unlike traditional trains it does not need to go onto a special track just to be cleaned. All the seats on shinkansen pivot, so staff go from one end of the train to the other rotating the seats so they all face forward. This seems impressive but within an average of 7 minutes the staff turn all the chairs around and also clean the whole train!
Since the establishment of the Tokaido shinkansen route in 1964 5 more routes have been developed. Sanyo, Tohoku, Joetsu Kokuriku and Kyushu make up the current routes which cross Japan. This network enables fast travel from Kagoshima in the south of Japan right up to Shin-Aomori on the tip of Japan’s main island. This means you can travel from one end of Japan to the other with only a few changes while traveling in comfort.
The current shinkansen routes may seem quite extensive but Japan Rail is not stopping here while many new routes are still being planned. An extension from Kanazawa to Tsuruga will open in 2015 on the Hokuriku shinkansen line. The Kyushu branch will also be extended to Nagasaki from Shin-Tosu. Extensions are also planned on Hokkaido, from Shin-Aomori to Shin-Hakodate which will be complete next year, with a further expansion to Sapporo in 2030. The final planned new route will involve the new Maglev line. Also, construction started in 2014 to create the Chuo Shinkansen Maglev line: Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka, to be completed in 2027.
Japan has impressed the world with its train safety, speed and comfort and continues to develop on the leading edge of innovation 50 years on.