History of the Shinkansen: 50 years of the Japanese bullet train

The Shinkansen are Japan’s gleaming symbol of technological development, its fast and efficient means of transportation. The Shinkansen are bullet trains that connect cities throughout Japan¡s high speed railways.

Most visitors to Japan desire to experience the Shinkansen trains, which attain top speeds in excess of 320 kilometers per hour (199 miles per hour), although most regular trains don’t go beyond 300 km/h. Tourists may not realize, however, all that has gone into making this unique rapid transportation possible.

Today’s bullet train system is over fifty years in the making. It is also one of the safest means of transportation, one of the few transit systems in the world that can boast of having no fatal accidents across its long history. In this article, we will consider some of the major events that have made Japan’s rail system the one you can today enjoy with the Japan Rail Pass.

The Shinkansen Timeline

The rich history of the Japanese train system is punctuated by a number monumental events and improvements to the experience. The first rail lines in Japan opened in 1872, but these steam-powered trains were a far cry from the speeds attainable today. Planning for the bullet train system began even before World War II, with land being acquired as early as the late 1930s.

Inauguration, 1964. A groundbreaking ceremony was held for the railway project in 1959, near what would be Mishima Station on the Tokaido Line. In just five years, the first train line was completed. On October 1, 1964, the line opened to commuter traffic at 6 AM. The Hikari bullet train made its debut, with one train departing from Tokyo Station and the other from Shin-Osaka Station. These 0 Series Shinkansen models remained in use until 1999. 

The Sanyo Shinkansen, 1975. The Sanyo Shinkansen bullet trains connect the two largest cities in western Japan, Osaka and Fukuoka. This line extended the Tokaido Line from Tokyo, making it possible to travel from Tokyo to Fukuoka in about five hours. Dining cars were also added to many trains. 

The Green Class, 1985. The year 1985 saw the release of a new type of Shinkansen train, known as the 100 Series. Green Class cars became available on these trains, giving passengers the option to enjoy a first-class travel experience. 

The Nozomi Trains, 1992. The word nozomi means “hope” or “wish,” and these new trains – originally 300 Series Shinkansen, but today N700 Series trains – carried with them the wishes of their designers. The Nozomi trains run on the Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen Lines, and are the fastest trains currently in operation in Japan. 

The Akita and Nagano Shinkansen, 1997. The Akita is a mini-shinkansen E6 Series train. Creating the mini shinkansen line included the need to convert existing narrow-gauge tracks, used by non-shinkansen trains, into narrower rails. These lines meet other Shinkansen tracks in certain areas. These trains run at slower speeds than their full-sized counterparts, but reach areas not previously serviced by bullet trains.

By 2006, the mini-shinkansen trains had served over twenty million passengers. The Nagano Shinkansen further connected areas in the Nagano Prefecture. Both of these trains were operational in time for the 1998 winter Olympics.

The Hokkaido Shinkansen, 2016. The Hokkaido Shinkansen is unique in its use of an undersea tunnel, called the Seikan Tunnel. The tunnel thus connects the northern island of Hokkaido with the main island of Honshu. Future plans include connecting this line to Sapporo by 2031. 

Beyond Japan: Exporting the Shinkansen 

Before the Shinkansen, transportation on railways was on the decline in many countries. Japan’s success, however, prompted other nations to invest in high-speed train technology. In 1981, France unveiled its TGV train, and the Inter-City Express opened in Germany in 1991.

Japan Rail companies are now expanding their technologies beyond Japan’s borders. Certain parts of Shinkansen technology, such as the specialized tracks and safety control systems have been integrated into other rail lines. In 2007, a high-speed service in China, as well as the Taiwan Shinkansen, began operations, and the United States and India are currently interested in shinkansen technology. 

The future of the Shinkansen 

The future of the Japanese Shinkansen trains is bright indeed. For decades, Japanese engineers have been working on maglev technology, which uses superconducting magnets to literally levitate the train above its tracks. The lack of friction allows the Maglev train to safely reach speeds in excess of those attainable by the current Shinkansen bullet trains.

The Maglev was tested successfully as early as the 1990s, and construction on the first commercial Maglev line began in 2009. The line between Tokyo and Nagoya is expected to open in 2027, with an extension to Osaka opening by 2045.

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3 thoughts on “History of the Shinkansen: 50 years of the Japanese bullet train”
  1. I have just watched the story about the Japanese Shinkansen trains on Mega Machines on the Science Channel. I was wondering if they reverse direction once they reach their destinations of Kyoto and Tokyo?

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