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The Japanese Bullet Train - Shinkansen

Updated on May 20, 2011


The bullet train or speed trains in Japan are known as Shinkansen. Shinkansen lines carry over 150 million passengers a year through out Japan. Since the inception of the Shinkansen in 1957, it has forever changed Japan economically, culturally and geographically. The trains are famous for their incredibly high speed. Publicly the trains run at 300 km/h (186 mph) but on test tracks experimental maglev trains can get up to 581 km/h (361 mph). Despite these incredible speeds, Japanese bullet trains have a nearly perfect safety record after 50 years of service, and are almost always on time down to the minute.

Check out the slide show below for some awesome pictures and continue reading for more information on Japan's Shinkansen.

If you want to learn how to ride the shinkansen, then head here for my how to guide. 

Bullet Trains

Click thumbnail to view full-size
a speed train heading through a city in Japan at night. photo credit: nozomi and hikari trainsBullet train zooming by mount FujiMount Fuji, Shinkansen, and some fields. A line up of bullet trains currently in use.
a speed train heading through a city in Japan at night. photo credit:
a speed train heading through a city in Japan at night. photo credit:
Shinkansen nozomi and hikari trains
Shinkansen nozomi and hikari trains
Bullet train zooming by mount Fuji
Bullet train zooming by mount Fuji
Mount Fuji, Shinkansen, and some fields.
Mount Fuji, Shinkansen, and some fields.
A line up of bullet trains currently in use.
A line up of bullet trains currently in use.

History of Japanese Bullet Trains

In the 1930's talk of building a new trainline specifically for rapid transport between major cities was talked about. However due to world war 2 the Japanese government delayed these plans only constructing a few tunnels before halting work on the project. It wasn't until after World War 2 that Japan began to think about restarting work on the Shinkansen. Aproval was given in the late 1950's and construction was not completed on the first section until 1964, just in time for the Tokyo Olympics. The new bullet train system that connected Toyko and Osaka (the to largest and most iinfluential cities in Japan) was a great success, and cut the travel time between the two cities in half from 6 hours to around 3 hours 10 minutes.

As the success of the shinkansen became obvious new tracks began construction and soon most of the major cities in Japan had bullet train stations.

Shinkansen Map

Shinkansen Map of Japan
Shinkansen Map of Japan

Impact of Japan's speedy trains

The image of a high speed bullet train zooming by snowcapped mount Fuji has almost become synonymous with Japan. These high speed trains have come to represent Japan's modern technical and ecnomic might as well as it's go go lightstyle.

The trains aren't just a symbol of Japan's economic power, but they have in fact helped to create it. Upgrading to Shinkansen train lines from regular old fashioned lines have saved an estimated 400 million hours, with an economic impact reaching nearly 500 billion yen per year. The existance of the shinkansen has also caused the rebirth of many small cities between larger metropolisis. On top of this the shinkansen has made doing business for both Japanese and foreign companies much simpler and has helped to promote tourism through out Japan.

Japan's bullet trains have even had a cultural impact. You can find animated shinkansen characters, stickers in every toy store in Japan. They have also bridged vast regions of Japan, tying the eastern and western parts of Japan together forcing the two culturally distinct regions to mix.

The future of the Shinkansen

New lines have been proposed through out Japan. Many have not been started but would be a welcome addition to the current bullet train system. One such proposal would connect Tokyo's Narita airport to the Shinkansen system. However this extrension would be incredibly costly due to the densely packed Toyko area.

Beyond new lines, new speed trains have been proposed. As soon as 2011 a new series of bullet train able to reach speeds of 320 km/h (199 mph) will begin operation. These trains will further decrease the time between major cities in Japan.

Beyond new conventional trains, Japan Railways is interested in moving to maglev trains. Maglev are inherently quieter than conventional track lines and can move at extremely high speeds safely. Current Test runs have clocked maglev trains running as fast as 500 km/h without any safety concerns.


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