All aboard the Shinkansen, the Japanese TGV

A true national obsession

Ever since the inauguration of the TGV in 1981 by President Mitterrand, France, it’s fair to say, has been pretty proud of its famous high-speed trains (and their export to several other countries around the world). But the country wasn’t the first to pursue such an initiative. Far from it. Seventeen years earlier, Japan in fact launched the first high-speed train in the world: the Shinkansen. Still in service today, the trains are known for their punctuality, safety and comfort – all qualities that often come at a high price.

If you thought the name TGV lacked a bit of… poetry, its Japanese predecessor is hardly different. Shinkansen literally means ‘new main line’. It was a pretty appropriate name, as the idea for the train appeared in 1957 when the Japanese archipelago was in the midst of its post-war economic boom. The country’s leaders realised that their trains weren’t set up for the new order. Japan needed a rapid train that linked up its main economic centres. Hence the name.

Seven years later, on October 1 1964, the Shinkansen was inaugurated. Just before the start of the Tokyo Olympics, it connected the capital with Osaka at a speed of 210 kilometres per hour. And the success was immediate: in less than three years, more than 100 million passengers had travelled on the trains, despite rather high prices. So advanced were the services that the the vice-president Keidanren, the union for Japanese bosses, said of it: ‘I think the destruction of Japan during the war was rather favourable to the country’s industry because it allowed us to abandon our old systems and we’ve been able to reconstruct it as if drawing on a blank page.’ It was a pretty inflammatory thing to say, but it says a lot about what the Shinkansen represents in the Japanese public consciousness.

Since then, the train has pretty much always lived up to that high standard. Year after year, the connections you can take expand up and down the archipelago, and the trains can now reach a whopping 320 kilometres an hour. To do that, the Shinkansen has done one thing very differently from the French TGV. The latter essentially uses the existing railway network, while its Japanese predecessor uses a dedicated network. That means it is never disturbed by other rail traffic, and is the main reason for its legendary punctuality. It doesn’t mess about: the average train delay is estimated to be around six seconds, with very few trains ever more than 30 seconds late. But this isn’t entirely down to that one strategic choice. As many observers of Japan have noted, it no doubt draws a lot of inspiration from the feted discipline of Japanese society itself.

The construction of the new network was evidently a huge undertaking. The mountainous topography of Japan, which explained the older slow and wiggly train routes, meant the work would take decades. Countless tunnels, bridges and viaducts were to be built all over the country, limiting slopes to a maximum of 1 percent and the radius of curves to 2,500 metres.

The other quality that is often associated with this train is its undeniable comfort. The carriages, purpose-built and revamped each time a new connection is opened, are 3.21 metres wide, compared with 2.904 metres for the TGV. The seats spin around so travellers always face the direction of travel – a simple idea that avoids the discomfort felt by certain passengers while the landscapes drift by the wrong way.

If you’ve never taken the Shinkansen, you surely don’t know that its greatest luxury lies in its food trays. While you may be looked down upon for eating in the underground systems of the Japanese megapolises, things are very different when you’re travelling at high speed. Called the Ekiben, a contraction of the words ‘tray meals sold at the station’, they’re prepared the morning of departure with fresh produce. Better still, each line of the Shinkansen has its own trays, all inspired by the region from which the train departs. It’s a veritable gastronomic and cultural experience, far removed from the mass-produced sandwiches and bland coffees you’ll get in most trains around the world.

Despite all the Shinkansen’s obvious qualities, Japan is always trying to make it perform better. Since 2019, it has been testing new carriage prototypes, called ALPHA-X, which are supposed to be able to travel at 360 kilometres/hour by 2030 or 2031. For now, however, it faces problems including excessive noise and braking distances that are too long. But nothing could discourage the engineers to always go further in pursuit of speed on the rails.

As you’ve probably deduced by now, the Shinkansen carries all the obsessions, splendour and scars of Japanese society. Far more than just a means of transport, it’s the result of a painful history, a sharp sense of engineering excellence and a certain vision of society and community. But as we’ve shown before, in articles on everything from the Ofotbanen to the Italian and Spanish railways, trains always convey a whole lot more than just freight and passengers.

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