Japan: Shinkansen boasts comfort, zero fatality record

(Anti-clockwise from far left) A Eurostar train at a station in Lille, France; China Railway High-speed Harmony bullet trains at a maintenance base in Wuhan, Hubei province, China; and a Japanese bullet train in Tokyo.
A Japanese bullet train in Tokyo.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Writer Hiroshi Izumi still remembers a time without the high-speed rail that connects Tokyo and Osaka.

The bullet train, or shinkansen, began service on this route in 1964 and has since expanded to cover most of Japan.

"It was unbelievable how the shinkansen revolutionised travel and made day trips possible," said Mr Izumi, who was travelling to Kyoto for work last Friday.

"I recall having to spend the night at the airport in the past so as not to miss an early morning domestic flight," added the 69-year- old, who now uses the shinkansen at least three times a month.

Despite a slew of flights on the 552km Tokyo-Osaka route today, Mr Izumi still prefers the nearly 2½-hour train journey with stops in Nagoya and Kyoto.

"The journey passes through areas with picturesque views, and it is a good time to just stare out the window in deep thought," he said.

Official figures show that up to 85 per cent of travellers chose the shinkansen over flying between the two cities last year.

The Tokyo-Osaka service, with a maximum speed of 285km per hour, had about 431,000 passengers per day last year. The service is the first and most heavily travelled high-speed rail route in the world, operator Central Japan Railway Company says, with a zero fatality record from accidents.

And the service is set to become even faster. By 2037, a magnetically levitated train, or "maglev", will travel at 500kmh, cutting the travel time to 67 minutes.

Transport experts say the birth of the high-speed rail accelerated the development of Tokyo and Osaka, which have expanded outwards. With this comes more demand for jobs, and studies show the shinkansen has reinforced the two cities as commercial hubs.

One such paper from the University of California, Berkeley, said: "By the early 1990s, the shinkansen line did not generate significant shifts of population or employment along its corridor, and it strengthened the economic role and primacy of Tokyo and Osaka at the expense of intermediate cities."

This trend of unequal growth has persisted even as Japan becomes more connected.

Latest data this month shows that more than 50 per cent of Japan's population lives in the three largest urban centres - Tokyo, Nagoya and Kansai, which includes Osaka - and that Tokyo's population is rising even as the number of people in rural areas is falling.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 24, 2016, with the headline 'Japan: Shinkansen boasts comfort, zero fatality record'. Print Edition | Subscribe