The Story Behind Japan's
Famous "Bullet Trains"

by John Erskine Banta

Japan's "Bullet Trains" have been world-famous since 1964, providing a class and quality of rail travel that set the world standard...a remarkable demonstration of the technical skills and farsighted vision of the Japanese. This tells how they came about...

On October 1, 1964 Japan National Railways (JNR) inaugurated the world’s fastest trains, which were quickly dubbed Bullet Trains by the foreign news media because of their shape and speed. Their success revolutionized thinking about modern railroads.

The new high-speed train service, between Tokyo and Osaka, began as a concept in 1956 when a committee was established to study the challenge of improving train service, already operating well beyond its rated capacity, between these two important cities.

The first recommendation of the committee in 1957 was that the existing double-track line should be expanded to a four-track line. The following year, a second committee voted to add a high-speed railroad on a separate double-track.

Ground was broken on this historic undertaking in April 1959, with a proposed completion date of mid-1964, in time for the fall opening of the Tokyo Olympics. Approximately 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) of the line was completed in 1962 for test purposes. Two sets of prototype trains were tested on the track over the next two years to prove the technology and identify the optimum design features.

The construction of the entire line was completed in July 1964. When full service was begun on October 1, it cut the travel time between Tokyo and Osaka from 6 hours and 30 minutes to 3 hours and 10 minutes - a factor that dramatically influenced business trips between the two cities.

The new Bullet Trains, which had a maximum speed of 210 kilometers (130 mph) and cruised at 127 mph, were an instant hit with both the Japanese public and foreign visitors. Daily service began with 60 trains, each with 12 coaches. Many Japanese and foreign residents booked passage on the trains just for the experience. Within the first 13 months, service on the new line was increased to 110 trains daily to handle the crowds.

The 1964 fall Olympics in Tokyo resulted in massive international news coverage for the new line, known in Japanese as Shinkansen (Sheen-kahn-sen), which translates as a very mundane "New Trunk Line."

The Bullet Train track was a conventional ballasted track, elevated on embankments or viaducts for the entire route, using 60 kilograms per meter (121 lbs per yard) welded rail, on pre-stressed concrete ties.

The coaches were multi-unit electric cars, selected over locomotive-hauled cars in order to achieve more even distribution of axle load and less stress on the track structure; to make it possible to apply dynamic brakes to all axles via the motors, to simplify the turn-around process, and to prevent the failure of one or two units interrupting the entire train.

Each single wheel axle had its own DC motor; each coach had two trucks with two axles each, for a total of four motors per car, and 64 for each train - making it possible to apply brakes on all axles at the same time.

The whole system was electrified with 25,000 volts at 60 hertz. But oddly enough, the commercial power frequency in Tokyo and for 150 km (93 mi) west of the city is 50 hertz, making it necessary to install frequency converters at two locations on the trains.

Electric power substations were erected every 50 kilometers (32 mi) along the high-speed route, with a special phase break system that switched power automatically from one station to the next so that trains could go through the switchovers with their propulsion power on.

The new Bullet Trains were operated with a system called Automatic Train Control (ATC) to prevent collisions by maintaining a safe distance between trains. The permissible speed was automatically indicated in the cab according to the distance between trains, the proximity of the next station stop, and the condition of the track.

These speed limits were set at 0, 30, 70, 110, 160, and 210 kilometers. The speed was left to the discretion of the conductor, but the brakes went on automatically if the train exceeded the permissible limits. The operator also brought the trains to a stop at the stations after receiving the 30 km per hour signal.

Following the inauguration of Bullet Train service between Tokyo and Osaka, the same high-speed service was expanded to cover the country in a network that became the envy of the world - and for the first several decades of their operation, there was not a single fatal accident anywhere on the network.

Today’s fastest Bullet Trains cruise at 300 kilometers per hour (186.4 mph), and make the Tokyo-Osaka trip in two hours and thirty minutes. As in the past, you can practically set your watch by the departure and arrival of the famous Bulletin Trains. Even a delay of less than a minute calls for an apology to passengers.

[Electro-magnetically elevated trains have been successful tested by Japan Railways, and will soon be in service. They will cruise at almost 300 miles per hour.

John Erskine Banta was General Manager and Director of Radisson Miyako Hotel Tokyo

Lonely Planet Japan
Chris Rowthorne
 Updated by an experienced team of Japan-based authors, this guide contains a special arts section covering everything from kabuki to anime (animation). It details a huge range of affordable accommodation, shopping and eating options, and has an easy-to-follow language chapter.
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