1964 | Japan
In a land of harmony and serenity, where mangas and robots coexist with traditions dating back thousands of years, the Japanese are passionate about trains. On this archipelago between the Pacific and the Sea of Japan, the railways have shaped the country since 1872. They have become part of the country’s history and culture. Among sumptuous landscapes, on a high-speed dedicated passenger line between Japan’s two biggest cities, Tokyo and Osaka, the world’s first high-speed train, the Shinkansen, became a reality. This ground-breaking accomplishment is a powerful symbol of the country’s post-war economic progress and technological prowess, and its launch has astonished and inspired the rest of the world. Today the Shinkansen circulates with the same frequency as a metro system, and Shin-Osaka station is a mere two hours and 22 minutes from Tokyo.
In Tokyo, motorways and railway tracks wind their way around the capital city’s skyscrapers. This XXL city boasts an international reputation, nevertheless, for safety and high living standards. The sprawling metropolis boldly mixes and matches styles: gaudy neon signs and hectic shopping, peaceful side streets and timeless temples, sumo wrestling and origami workshops, weddings in kimonos and trend-obsessed teenagers...Yet in Japan’s most populated city – 13.8 million inhabitants – peace and calm can always be found; and cycling is a real pleasure. Cleanliness, mutual respect, and an innate public spirit are part of everyday life. This trio of attributes comes to life in the immense Tokyo Station, one of the largest on the Japanese rail network.
Crowds move about with great courtesy, and passengers can easily find their platforms with the help of bilingual signage – in Japanese and English – and highly-attentive staff. This is where many Shinkansen bullet trains operating on the westbound, eastbound, and northbound lines arrive and depart every few minutes, in addition to heavy commuter rail traffic. Thousands of trains transit the station every day.
Japan’s first railway line entered commercial service in 1872 with narrow gauge tracks. Cheaper to build, this system goes hand in hand with low passenger capacity, and limited speeds. Prior to the 1940s, the government started exploring a solution to increase transport capacity; but the project was soon interrupted by World Word II. It resumed after the war in 1959.The rail network had become a vital tool in the country’s modernisation, providing support for development. The Japanese government considered the railway to be a top priority.
The turning point arrived with the Shinkansen, literally ‘new railway’, which describes both the fast train and its infrastructure. Tokaido Shinkansen, the first dedicated high-speed line connecting Tokyo and Shin-Osaka at 210km/hr, entered commercial service on 1 October 1964, ten days before the opening of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. The first high-speed line in the world – and an instant success – it was operated by Japanese National Railways (JNR) until 1987, when the public company was divided and privatised into six geographical units. Since then, it has been run by the Central Japan Railway Company (JR Central). In 1967, works began to extend the line westwards. The Sanyo Shinkansen line linking Shin-Osaka station to Hakata, on the island of Kyushu, opened in 1975. The Kyushu Shinkansen line finally reached Kagoshima-Chuo, at the southernmost tip of the island, in 2011.
It is not easy to leave Tokyo, with its never-ending suburbs and vast shopping centres. The train runs alongside Sagami Bay then enters the Chubu region, in the middle of the island, with its contrasting landscapes. To the south are international sea ports of industrial importance such as Nagoya, Shimizu and Tagono-ura, as well as coastal towns; to the north, the ‘Japanese Alps’ whose mountain peaks reach altitudes of 3,000 metres. Through the windows of the Shinkansen...the stuff dreams are made of...views of Mount Fuji with its snowy summit dominating the surrounding tea plantations. Just as unreal are the traditional houses built close to the tracks. While Aichi is well-known for its Toyota car manufacturing plants, less familiar are its extremely popular recipes for grilled eels and miso pork.
JR Central Towers, built as Nagoya Station building, completed in 1999, is the biggest in the world in terms of height and floor space in its category! The complex is composed of twin towers - each more than 50-storeys high - that are notably home to the offices of JR Central, the company that operates the line. The station is home to a dozen shops and restaurants with hundreds more in the neighbourhood’s other large-scale underground complexes, which attract both passengers and local visitors. Next up is the Kansai region, the cradle of Japanese civilisation and home to much of the cultural heritage of the archipelago. The train races across a vast basin, then stops in Kyoto. Nearly 1,500 Buddhist temples, 300 Shinto shrines, a profusion of gardens.... Like Nara, Kyoto is one of the most beautiful cities of the archipelago, where all is order, harmony and beauty. Renowned for its university, Kyoto was the imperial, cultural, and spiritual capital city for over 1,000 years. Kyoto Station offers wonderful views of the tall Kyoto Tower standing just opposite. Shin-Osaka is the end of the line for the Tokaido Shinkansen.
This 515-km line, dedicated exclusively to passenger transport, opened after just five years of construction work. At the time, creating infrastructure for trains to operate at 210km/hr was no mean feat, as was the construction of many engineered structures along the route. Viaducts and embankments eliminate the need for level crossings, making this railway line the first to be built in Japan without such structures.
Over the past 50 years, it has benefitted from several technological innovations: most remarkably, JR Central attained commercial speed of 270km/hr by introducing the Series 300 in 1992. Its lightweight car body, made of aluminium alloy, and alternating current regenerative braking system were realised thanks to integrated enhancement of infrastructure and rolling stock.
Along this line, Kyoto has treated itself to a truly monumental station. The state-of-the-art building reaches 15-storeyshighand has three subsurface levels. Its checkerboard rooftops take inspiration from the layout of the old lanes of Kyoto. Metal footbridges and vertiginous escalators criss-cross the spectacularly tall station, clad in glass and steel. Visitors to the 15th-floor garden terrace can admire views of the city. Crowds are dense, but the atmosphere is never hectic. People stroll through vast shopping centres, among exclusive boutiques and small businesses. This mini-city even offers a luxury hotel and theatre.
The national railway network (Japanese National Railways) was divided into seven private companies: three (JR Central, JR West, and JR East) on the main island; three (Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku) on the smaller islands; and one, transversal, dedicated to rail freight.
Admired for their safety, reliability, rapidity, and punctuality, the Shinkansen bullet trains have acquired a global reputation. In 1964, all eyes were on this first high-speed train, with its elegant ivory white livery and striking strip of windows picked out in blue. The pronounced duck bill profile looks like something straight out of a sci-fi novel. After the hustle and bustle of the stations, boarding a Shinkansen is a truly sensory experience. Passengers are wrapped in a cocoon of silence, and barely a whisper is to be heard. Cars are maintained to perfection and staff enhance the feeling of order and calm with greetings, impeccable uniforms, and excellent service. The width of the N700 Shinkansen car body is 336cm – over 30cm wider than other high-speed trains like the German ICE or French TGV – so the train offers spacious interiors. The Shinkansen trains operating on the Tokyo-Shin-Osaka line offer two travel classes: Ordinary and Green. There are five rows of seating in Ordinary Class, all facing the direction of travel, adaptable to the needs of each passenger, and reclining. Green Class has four rows of wider seating.
To encourage the Japanese to travel by train, West Japan Railway Company (JR West) decks out some of its Shinkansen trains in the colours of the country’s world-famous character – Hello Kitty. If pink is your thing!
Bright yellow is reserved for the livery of the high-speed inspection train – nicknamed Doctor Yellow – used to monitor the Shinkansen network at approximately every 10 days.
Internet connectivity is provided for both travel classes. There is no buffet car; instead, a trolley service offers proper bento, boxed meal trays (ekiben). Taking pride in their work, the uniformed staff are accessible, polite, and efficient. On the platforms, agents manage the passenger flows and salute the trains on departure. On board, staff also salute passengers on arrival and departure. A clearly satisfying service expectation is as important as punctuality. The N700A is the main type of train operating today on the Tokaido Shinkansen line. The names of the trains in the Shinkansen family are Nozomi/ ‘hope’ – the fastest (2 hours and 22 minutes between the two cities) – Hikari/ ‘light’, and Kodama / ‘echo’ –this latter stops at every station. The N700S type or ‘Supreme’ Shinkansen model will be introduced into commercial service by 2020, when the Tokyo Summer Olympics will be held. Lighter, more energy efficient, and even quieter than previous types, its prototype was unveiled to the public in March 2018.
→ Shinkansen Tokaido N700A departing Tokyo.
Arriving in Japan’s second largest city is not so sudden since its outskirts merge with those of Kyoto. A cosmopolitan and vibrant city crisscrossed with motorways and underpasses, Osaka plays a pivotal role in trade with China and Southeast Asia, thanks to its port terminal. Its 16th century castle, rebuilt time and time again, rises uptime less amidst an impressive skyline. Its relaxing gardens and its theatres contrast with certain districts that are lively and crowded. Shin-Osaka is the terminus station for the Tokaido Shinkansen and the departure station for the Sanyo Shinkansen, and was officially opened at the same time as the first high-speed line in 1964. Shin-Osaka is located three kilometres north of Osaka Station, in the Yodogawa district, famed for incredible summer fireworks that attract tens of thousands of people to the riverside.
In Japan, no other mode of transport can compete with high-speed rail. Not air travel with its isolated airports, nor the automobile, taking traffic congestion in city centres and their outskirts into account. The Tokyo-Shin-Osaka line, opened in 1964, was an instant success, with passenger numbers for the Shinkansen exceeding all expectations from the very first year. Modernisation of the Japanese archipelago owes much to this train, which has brought its four main islands closer together. By reducing journey times, the Shinkansen has had a huge influence on Japan’s economy. It has helped expand the scope of activities for companies and facilitated business between the two major cities of Tokyo and Osaka – as confirmed by the significant 68% of travellers using the Tokaido Shinkansen for business purposes as of 2017. Yet the economic benefits of the Shinkansen go beyond merely reducing journey times. During construction of the line, real estate programmes alongside the tracks contributed towards urban development, particularly in the outskirts of Osaka. The positive impact on stations is equally impressive, transforming them into shopping centres and accommodating all kinds of restaurants, shops, kiosks, and other boutiques. They have also become leisure and entertainment destinations, with their immediate surroundings reaping the benefits of this new-found attractiveness.
→ Shinkansen train at the platform in Shin-Osaka Station.
Entry into commercial service for a route between Tokyo and Osaka, scheduled for 2045, puts Japan among the first countries in the world to launch a superconducting magnetic levitation (SC Maglev) line. In order to prepare for natural disaster risks, deal with saturation of the existing high-speed line, and upgrade infrastructure without interrupting commercial rail traffic, JR Central is seeking a new and alternative mode of transport to the train by creating multiple routes. By 2027, the train of the future, running at a maximum operational speed of 500km/hr, should put Tokyo and Nagoya just 40 minutes apart. When the line is extended to Osaka in 2045, it will then take 67 minutes to travel between Tokyo and Osaka.
Maglev trains are currently the fastest in the world. Their wheels don’t touch the tracks at speeds upwards of 150km/hr, but instead levitate over them due to the presence of superconduction magnets on board and electromagnets along the guide way that keep the trains in a ‘floating’ position, guiding them horizontally, and propelling them forward.
TOKYO > OSAKA
TURIN > NAPLES
MADRID > SEVILLE
COLOGNE > FRANKFURT
BARCELONA > MADRID
SEOUL > BUSAN
BEIJING > SHANGHAI
ANKARA > ISTANBUL
LANZHOU > URUMQI
SHANGHAI > KUNMING
TOKYO > HAKODATE
ZURICH > MILAN
BEIJING > HONG KONG
TANGIER > CASABLANCA