High speed rail in Japan

I am just back from two weeks’ travel in Asia where I have seen the past and the future of the world’s best high speed rail.  This week, my thoughts on Japan and next week, China.

It was 1964 when the Japanese introduced the world’s first “bullet train”, the Shinkansen.  Using a dedicated right-of-way (no freight, no slow trains), the Tokaido line between Tokyo and Osaka today carries over 150 million passengers a year at speeds up to 190 mph… not the fastest in the world, but easily the busiest.

Now on its seventh generation of equipment, I rode the Nozumi Express from Tokyo to Kyoto and was amazed at the service.  Like Grand Central Terminal, Tokyo’s main downtown station is a dead-end.  As trains arrive, passengers disembark and uniformed cleaning crews have about ten minutes to clean and freshen the equipment for the next run.

The Nozumi runs from Tokyo to Osaka, a distance of 314 miles, equivalent to the distance between Boston and Baltimore.  And it makes that journey in 2 ½ hours with trains every five to ten minutes!  Each 16 car train can carry up to 1300 passengers in first (“Green”) class (two by two seating) or second class (three by two… the Japanese are small).

Compare that to Amtrak with hourly Acela service in six car trainsets holding 300 passengers total.  Acela’s fastest run from Boston to Baltimore is just shy of six hours with an average speed of 90 – 120 mph.

The Japanese trains are so fast there is no need for a diner or bar car.  Instead, passengers can buy an “ekiben” boxed lunch from dozens of stores at the station.  Because all seats are assigned, passengers que up at the exact spot on the platform where their car will stop, awaiting permission to board.  When the cleaning crews finish, the doors open, passengers board and the train departs… always on time, and to the second.

As the conductor collects tickets, he bows to each customer.  Train crew passing through the cars always turn and bow to the passengers before going to the next car.  The ride is so smooth as to not be thought possible.  And arrivals and departures are to the second with average dwell time at intermediate stations no longer than 90 seconds.  And, of course, there is free Wi-Fi during the entire journey.

The first class fare on the Nozumi Express between Tokyo and Osaka is $186.  On Amtrak’s Acela, the Boston to Baltimore ride costs up to $279 for business class, $405 in first class.

Japan’s Shinkansen is the grand-daddy of high speed rail, but still among the best.  Next time I’ll tell you about the newest, and to my thinking, the world’s best high speed rail… in China!  And I’ll recount my 11 minute ride on the world’s only commercial maglev in Shanghai.


JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 21 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at [email protected] or www.trainweb.org/ct .  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com


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  • Michael

    After 9+ years in Japan it is easy to take for granted the efficiency, reliability and a host of other things associated with riding the bullet trains or any trains here for that matter. I had the opportunity to ride a new model with wi-fi from Osaka to Tokyo and it is truly a quiet, enjoyable way to travel. On the way back I was on an older model with no wi-fi and noticeable creaking sounds. It was good to experience both I guess so I can fully appreciate the newest model. For me personally, I live just south of Kansai International Airport so in order to take the bullet train I would have to take a train to the bullet train station which is probably close to two hours. And with the recent addition of several budget air carriers leaving from KIX and the 1 hour flight time – it makes the choice to fly even easier. So for me; taking the bullet train would be when I made the choice simply because I wanted to experience riding the bullet train. Not because it’s the most convenient or cheapest way. Ah yes, the price! My final note. With round trip airfares sometimes as low as 10,000 – it makes the decision even easier. But I do so love riding the bullet trains.

  • Mr. Cameron, it’s too bad your maglev experience was an “11 minute ride on the world’s only commercial maglev in Shanghai.” That means your top speed on the 30-kilometer (19-mile) track was “only” 300 km/h, or 186 mph.

    If you had gotten a ride between 9:00am-11:00am or 3:00pm-5:00pm you would have been able to hit 430 km/h, or 267 mph, along the way to a 7.5-minute trip time. Now that’s a thrill that no conventional train can match.

    No terrible loss, though. At least you’re one of the lucky Americans to experience first-hand the reality of high-speed maglev transportation. I wish more people could do the same.

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