Going Faster: Bullet Trains and High-speed Lines

BY THE 1960S, THE RAILROADS were competing against automobiles, semitrucks, and airplanes. Politicians and civil servants thought the railroad age was coming to an end—an outmoded form of travel that belonged to the 19th rather than the late 20th century—and governments chose to invest in highways and roads that provided the convenience of door-to-door travel instead. Car ownership soared, semitrucks started hauling freight, and commercial flights took off, heralding the dawn of the jet age. To counter these trends, railroad services needed modernization. It was the Japanese who led the way with the groundbreaking Shinkansen (“new mainline”), known in the West as the bullet train. It started a trend for high-speed railroads that would spread—albeit rather slowly—around the world.


Japan’s geography and pattern of settlement contributed to the genesis of the bullet train, as it had to the development of Japan’s railroads in the first place. The country consists of four main islands, but less than a fifth of the land mass is habitable, so most of the population of 126 million is confined to a relatively small part of the country. It was this density of population in lowland regions that created the right conditions for high-speed rail development. In fact, while the high-speed aspect of the Shinkansen is emphasized, the new lines evolved mainly because the existing network was running out of capacity.

Japan came late to the railroad age. The island state had shunned the rest of the world until 1868, when the new Meiji administration sought to modernize the country, opening its doors to the railroads. The first line, which covered the 18 miles (29km) between Tokyo and Yokohoma, opened in 1872, and the Japanese adopted trains with enthusiasm. The engineers of the line used the narrow gauge of 3ft 6in (1,067mm), the same as in New Zealand as the islands had similar topographies. Later plans to convert to standard gauge to increase traffic on the railroads were opposed by military powers; instead, lines were extended.

The railroads boomed in the final few years of the 19th century, and by 1907 there were nearly 4,500 miles (7,250km) of railroad in operation, all owned by the state-run Japanese Imperial Railways. Development continued steadily between the first and second world wars. By 1945, the total mileage had reached 16,000 miles (26,000km), nearly a quarter of which was owned privately, with the rest under the control of the renamed Japanese National Railways.


By the 1930s, Japan’s first trunk route, the Tokaido line, which linked Tokyo with a series of major cities that included Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe, was already becoming heavily congested. An entirely new route between Tokyo and Osaka was proposed that would cover the 400-mile (640-km) journey in four hours—an unheard-of speed for a railroad at the time. Work started in 1941, but was more or less abandoned after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor triggered the Pacific War.

The Japanese economy took some time to recover from defeat in the war, but by the mid-1950s the Tokaido line was again running at capacity and the plan for the Tokaido Shinkansen was revived. Shinji Sog¯o, the president of the state-run railroads, lobbied hard to persuade the government that the railroad line would be viable, as at the time it seemed that cars and planes would make railroads redundant. It was the need for extra train routes that stimulated the Shinkansen’s development, but to compete with cars it was built on highway principles, with few stops and fast journey times. The high speed was a by-product of the need for capacity rather than an end in itself—a principle that applied to most high-speed systems around the world. Of course, the high-speed aspect helped to attract passengers away from their cars, and also made it possible for rail to compete with aviation over distances of up to 500 miles (800km), thanks to its city-center-to-city-center routing.

It was decided that Japan’s new line would carry only fast electric passenger trains and would use the standard 4ft 8½in (1,435mm) gauge to provide greater capacity and enable use of technology from other railroads. Despite difficult terrain and cost overruns—the eventual cost of 380 billion yen (around $1.1 billion at the time) was twice the original budget—the line was completed five years after work started in 1959. By contemporary high-speed standards, the line was slow, with an average speed of 130mph (209kph), but thanks to its dedicated track and limited stops the journey time was radically reduced. While the conventional express took 6 hours and 40 minutes between the two main cities, Tokyo and Osaka, the Shinkansen made the trip in 4 hours when it started operating just before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The Shinkansen changed business patterns too, by making day trips between Tokyo and Osaka possible. Shinji Sog¯o’s faith in the railroad was fully justified. An immediate success, the service carried 100 million passengers in less than three years; by 1976, it had carried one billion. Today, the Tokaido Shinkansen carries 143 million passengers annually.


It was not an easy ride, however. The service suffered teething pains, including discomfort to passengers’ ears when trains crossed in the tunnels that accounted for 45 miles (72km) of the route, and a more embarrassing problem: the air currents generated in the tunnels blew water up from the toilet bowls, much to the users’ discomfiture. Eventually, it was decided to pressurize the trains to solve these problems, which proved expensive but was successful. Interestingly, despite the Shinkansen’s popularity, Japanese National Railways faced opposition to building the network it had envisaged. Noise and cost were both concerns, but eventually, in the 1970s, several new lines as well as extensions to the Tokaido line were built. Today, there is a network of 2,200 miles (3,540km). The fastest trains on the Sanyo line travel at 186mph (300kph), a speed that has become the norm across the world for high-speed lines.


Around the world, it was some years before another country followed Japan’s lead. Although railroad managers were eager to increase speeds from the 60–70mph (90–110kph) that was standard for express trains by the 1960s, governments remained doubtful as to whether the “old technology” of train travel was worth investing in. In Germany and France, train speed trials took place, demonstrating that trains could easily reach speeds of 124mph (200kph) for long periods, and attempts were made to speed up services on existing lines. In France, the Paris–Toulouse route was upgraded in 1966 to support 124mph (200kph) running through improvements to tracks and signaling. In Britain, a new diesel service branded InterCity 125 was introduced on routes from London after 1976. However, all used existing lines, which limited their speed as other, slower trains shared the tracks.

To avoid line-sharing, France decided in the 1970s to create a dedicated bullet-style service called the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV); like the Shinkansen, the TGV has become a world-renowned brand. At the time, capacity on the key Paris–Lyon route was reaching its limits and it was decided to build a new line, separate from the existing railroad except at the city entrances, where tracks were shared with conventional services. The TGV uses the same gauge as regular trains so it can run on high-speed and standard tracks for flexibility. The French had created high-speed trains that had beaten the world record several times, reaching an impressive 262mph (422kph) on an experimental track in 1969. Clearly, such speeds would only be possible on a dedicated track, so in 1976, construction of the first Ligne à Grand Vitesse started. The Paris–Lyon line was completed in 1981, when the first TGVs started running at a top speed of 168 mph (270kph), later increased to 186mph (300kph). The service was an instant success, challenging air travel between the two cities. France embarked on a network of high-speed lines emanating from Paris. The Est, which opened in 2007, operates at 200mph (320kph).


France’s high-speed network covered 1,185 miles (1,907km) in 2013, but has now been surpassed in distance by Spain. In 2005, Spain announced a plan to ensure that 90 percent of the population would live within 30 miles (50km) of a station served by the Spanish Alta Velocidad Española (AVE) network. Spain’s first high-speed line, between Madrid and Seville, was completed in time for the Seville Expo ’92. It used standard gauge as opposed to the 5-ft 6in (1,680mm) Iberian gauge used by other Spanish services. This led to a technological development that allows the latest high-speed trains to change gauge without stopping so they can continue journeys off the high-speed network. By 2013, Spain operated half a dozen routes out of Madrid and, with Barcelona also a hub, a total of 1,285 miles (2,000km) of high-speed line had been opened, with a further 684 miles (1,100km) under construction.

After France, Germany was the second country in Europe to develop high-speed lines. It opted for a different model by creating high-speed sections rather than whole new routes, so the trains switch frequently between conventional and high-speed lines. Germany launched its Intercity-Express (ICE) in 1991, operating at a top speed of 174mph (280kph) on the Hannover–Würzburg high-speed railroad.

Since 2000, a number of new high-speed rail services have started operating in East Asia. In South Korea, the Korea Train Express was launched in 2004 along the Seoul–Busan corridor, linking the country’s two biggest towns. It uses trains built by Alstom, the same company that builds the TGV in France. Taiwan has a high-speed railroad running more than 200 miles (322km) along the west coast of Taiwan, from the national capital Taipei to the southern city of Kaohsiung, using technology based primarily on Japan’s Shinkansen. The biggest network by far, however, is in China (see China, the New Pioneer).

Safety has been a major factor in the success of high-speed trains: although there have been three major accidents involving high-speed trains, none occurred at full speed on dedicated lines. In Germany in 1998, a wheel broke at 124mph (200kph) and came off the rails at a bridge—resulting in the derailment and destruction of the full set of 16 cars and the death of 101 people. In China in 2011, due to a signaling error, a train traveling at 62mph (100kph) hit a stationary train on a viaduct, killing 40 people. At Santiago de Compostela in Spain in 2013, a train came off the rails at 120mph (195kph) on a curve with a speed limit of 50mph (80kph), and smashed into a concrete wall, killing 79 people. Despite these accidents, the overall safety record of high-speed rail is better than for any other form of transportation.

By 2013, there were nearly 10,000 miles (16,000km) of high-speed line around the world, with plans for lines in countries including Ukraine, Turkey, and Belarus. In the US, an 520-mile (837-km) line from San Francisco to Los Angeles has been approved by the California state government, but budget constraints and protests have delayed construction. In Britain, the proposal for HS2, a 330-mile (530-km) high-speed line network joining London with several major cities at a cost of $82 billion has also met with fierce opposition. While some new plans might be tinged with controversy, the advantages of high-speed rail are uncontested, and its place in the future of transportation, is assured.

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