Five things to know about Japan's Shinkansen: The trains that always run on time

A Shinkansen bullet train waits at Tokyo Train Station.

A Shinkansen bullet train waits at Tokyo Train Station.

In 1964 the Japanese launched the world's first high-speed rail line. With an operating speed of 210km/h, it would still put our "modern" train services to shame.

More than half a century later, the island nation is eager to export its technology to other parts of the world. And the key selling points of the Japanese fast train are a matter of great national pride.

1. The Shinkansen always run on time

The average delay is less than 60 seconds.
Carl Court

The average delay is less than 60 seconds.

The average delay of the nation's fleet of bullet train, known locally as the Shinkansen, is less than 60 seconds. Believe or not, this statistic also includes unavoidable, major delays such as typhoons and earthquakes.

"I think it's fair to say the Shinkansen always run on time," said Nobukazu Nagai, a director with the Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

In a requirement that most would probably consider – well, embarrassing – Shinkansen drivers are trained to talk to themselves throughout their journey, continually logging how they are performing to schedule.

"Ten seconds of delay departure," they will bark out loud, to no one in particular, also pointing with white-gloved hands to a traditional pocket watch that is propped up on the dash.

The Shinkansen can travel many hundreds of kilometres in any one journey, but if a train arrives more than one minute late to its destination, the driver will have to give a formal explanation.

2. Flying trains

People wave flags as the first train of the new Hokkaido shinkansen, or bullet train, from Tokyo, travels near Kikonai ...

People wave flags as the first train of the new Hokkaido shinkansen, or bullet train, from Tokyo, travels near Kikonai Station.

The fastest current operating speed of the Japanese bullet train is 320kmh. 

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While Japan no longer has the fastest commercially-operating passenger train on earth (China does at 431km/h), it's attempting to win back the crown, with a new type of super-fast train, perhaps better described as an aeroplane train.

For most of its journey, the magnetic levitation train does make contact with the ground, but hovers 10 centimetres above as it's propelled through the air with electrically-charged magnets on either side of the track. Just like a plane, its wheels go up when it gets up enough speed.

The Central Japan Railway Company has begun construction on a $65 billion magnetic levitation line between Tokyo and Nagoya. SC Maglev trains on this route, expected to be in operation by 2027, will have operating speeds of 500km/h, though trains on a test line near Mount Fuji have already reached more than 600km/h, breaking world speed records in the process.

3. 51 years accident free

No passenger has been killed in a Japanese bullet train crash since they first rolled out more than half a century ago.

The Shinkansen is a network of high-speed railway lines in Japan.

The Shinkansen is a network of high-speed railway lines in Japan.

Type "Shinkansen crash" into Google and you'll only find a few scraggly stories about a Japanese bullet train that hit a car, killing the driver, and some accounts of the not-uncommon cases of suicide by train.

Elsewhere in the world hundreds of people have been killed in high-speed rail catastrophes. Germany's Intercity Express had an unblemished fatality record for just seven years before 101 people were killed when one of its trains derailed at 200km/h in 1998.

4. The seven-minute miracle

No one who visits Japan would dispute that the Shinkansen are impressive machines. If you're lucky enough to witness a long-nosed Shinkansen roaring through a station at full speed, you will experience the monstrous roar it makes that rattles you to the bones, and can only evoke comparisons to some sort of mythical being.

But so much of the success of the Japanese fast train and their efficiency is tied to the Japanese themselves.

For example, even the passengers exhibit a special type of discipline. Alongside the trains there are lines painted on the ground, one column labelled "first" for the next train and the other "second" for one after. Instead of lounging wherever they so please on the platform, everyone politely lines up in order of arrival within the appropriate painted line.

Then there is the so-called "seven-minute miracle", named after the efficient train cleaners who wait in lines beside the train. Wielding squeegees, the women in pink and men in blue will bow deeply to the train as it arrives and then bow repeatedly to all the passengers who disembark, before running through the cabins, wiping down trays and collecting rubbish. All this takes just seven minutes, allowing the Shinkansen to quickly turn around for another major journey.

5. Better than air travel?

 In the battle between the Shinkansen and the airlines, the Japanese talk about the magic 800-kilometre mark. Any less than 800 kilometres, most prefer to travel by fast train, any more then it is the aeroplanes that have the edge. 

Aisha Dow travelled to Japan as a guest of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan.


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