Home > Life in Japan > Features
  print button email button

Sunday, Jan. 5, 2003

All aboard: a nation in motion

Special to The Japan Times

Monday is the first business day of the new year, so on Sunday the nation's airports, highways and rail lines will be crammed to overcapacity by a mass migration known as the "U-turn."

News photo
The world-famous Shinkansen

This phenomenon occurs thrice yearly, at the conclusion of the year's three major vacation periods: in early January, at the end of the Golden Week holiday in early May and following the Bon break in mid-August. At each of these times, tens of millions of urban dwellers who returned to their hometowns or headed off on domestic or overseas vacations pack up their souvenirs and return to the teeming cities.

While motorists are forever out in force at these times, many choose to travel by rail rather than endure traffic that can be backed up for 50 km or more on the nation's expressways. For those with the foresight to secure reserved seats (or those who win the race to the nonreserved cars), they can be sure their trip will be relatively quick and comfortable. Even those forced to stand for some or all of their journey will be consoled that, thanks to a laudable tradition of service and dedicated management, their train's arrival time will, barring blizzards or natural disaster, be precise enough to set their watches by.

Since 1872, historic, topographic and demographic factors have combined to transform Japan into a nation on rails. A mere four years after the Meiji Restoration ended more than 2 1/2 centuries of feudalism under the Tokugawa Shogunate, the first intercity train service was initiated, between Shinbashi, in Tokyo, and Yokohama.

If your daily commute takes you that way -- or over certain sections of the Chuo, Sobu, Ome or Yamanote lines -- you're riding on sectors that were serving travelers in the late 19th century.

A hobby for most ages

Although the rise of car ownership and internal air routes have eroded railways' overall share of domestic passenger transport from 66.7 percent in 1965 to 27.1 percent in 2000, the numbers riding Japan's rails remain huge.

In fact, in 2000, the latest year for which comparative figures are available, Japan ranked third in the world in total rail-passenger kilometers traveled at 3.844 trillion -- a figure 40 times higher than that of the United States and only slightly behind first-place India and second-place China, both far bigger and with populations on the order of 10 times higher.

Having sewn the nation together with its rails, the train has also spawned many tens of thousands of rail hobbyists. Beside those who make a pastime of traveling by train, others delve into the history of trains, go out of their way to photograph them or assemble their own miniature model railways.

Noriyuki Natori, editor in chief of Rail Magazine, a glossy monthly for train buffs, says his publication's approximately 80,000 mostly male readers tend to be in their teens, or else from the mid-30s up.

"When they're in their 20s, people get busy with their jobs, start families or get interested in other things, like cars," he says -- noting that the cover photo on his magazine's January 2003 issue was snapped by an 18-year-old enthusiast in Okayama Prefecture. "Then, afterward, they come back."

In addition to enjoying reading about the latest rail technology, Natori notes that his readers are highly nostalgic. "They like to learn about the history of old trains and take rides on old lines, especially just before they're phased out to make way for new ones."

News photo
The magazine Tetsudo Omocha (Toy Railways) aims at budding train buffs in a nation.

To begin nurturing young enthusiasts who will hopefully someday make up Rail Magazine's reader base, Natori's company, Neko Publishing, also produces a quarterly called Tetsudo Omocha, aimed at preteens. Featuring games, toys, model trains and books about trains, it is, Natori says, "typically purchased by doting mothers."

Preteen or not, though, it doesn't take a rail buff to know that Japan's most famous train is the very same one on Rail Magazine's January cover: the shinkansen -- often known in English as the "bullet train."

The network of five high-speed trunk lines that link Japan's main population centers began operating along the Tokyo-Osaka route on Oct. 1, 1964 -- the same month that the capital played host to the Olympic Games. Since then, the shinkansen has served as Japan's modern "face" -- drawing attention to the country's ability not only to build a train harnessing advanced technology, but also to operate it for 39 years with an unparalleled degree of punctuality and safety.

While the shinkansen's passenger amenities and many other services have been improved -- including "Express" cards issued by Central Japan Railway Co. that permit reservations and ticket purchases to be made via cell phones -- people undeniably tend to equate rail progress with higher speed.

In Japan's case, the benchmark for rail performance has traditionally been the time it takes to travel 550 km between Tokyo and Osaka, via the cities along the congested Pacific corridor known since ancient times as the Tokaido ("eastern sea road"). Travelers in feudal times made the journey on foot or in palanquins in close to a week. The first direct rail service, begun in 1889, reduced the trip to 18 hours. Then steam gave way to diesel, which in turn gave way to electricity, and by 1960 the narrow-gauge "Kodama" express had cut the run to 6 1/2 hours.

Shinkansen revolution

Then came the shinkansen. In 1965, the year "Hikari" limited-express trains started running at top speed after speed restrictions were relaxed when the new rail bed had settled, the Tokyo-Osaka journey time was effectively halved, to 3 hours 10 minutes. This achieved one of the line's stated objectives, which was to make it practical to do same-day round trips -- a service greatly desired by businessmen.

The current "Nozomi" superexpresses, running faster -- at up to 220 kph -- and making fewer stops, have succeeded in reducing this time to just 2 1/2 hours.

Buoyed by its unparalleled record for punctuality and safety, the shinkansen was extended along the Sanyo route to Hakata (Fukuoka in Kyushu) in 1975. Other high-speed lines followed: The Joetsu Shinkansen began service between Omiya, Saitama and Niigata in 1982. Meanwhile, the Tohoku Shinkansen began running between Ueno (Tokyo) and Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, in 1985. That route -- on which top speeds are 50 kph higher than the Tokaido Shinkansen as there are fewer curves -- was extended last month to Hachinohe in Aomori Prefecture. The newest line, the Hokuriku Shinkansen linking Tokyo and Nagano, was built and opened for the Winter Olympics in 1997.

These five routes combine to carry an average of 750,000 passengers per day (516,093 on the Tokaido/Sanyo route; 219,488 on the Tohoku route, 98,907 on the Joetsu route and 25,827 on the Hokuriku route).

The original Tokaido Shinkansen, which turns 39 this October, is still going strong, although concerns have been raised in some quarters concerning its aging infrastructure.

"During off-hours, every inch of the line is subject to regular diagnostics," asserts Masashi Itoyama, a spokesman for the Tokaido Shinkansen's operator, Central Japan Railway Co. "We estimate current infrastructure has about 15 more years of use before it can expect to undergo extensive renovations."

Itoyama added that following the Great Hanshin Earthquake in January 1995, which caused direct services between Osaka and Hakata to be suspended for several months, elevated sections of the track underwent additional reinforcement.

However glamorous it may seem to most, for growing numbers of people a ride on a shinkansen is just another part of their daily routine. From the mid-1980s, the economic bubble pushed the prices of homes in the Tokyo metropolitan area into the stratosphere. By taking advantage of companies' policy of footing the bill for their employees' commuter tickets, many people then decided to take advantage of lower living costs in rural areas and ride the shinkansen to work. Now, the number of daily commuters who do this is currently estimated at more than 20,000 on the Tokaido/Sanyo route, 12,000 on the Tohoku route and 7,000 on the Joetsu routes.

One such commuter is Masamichi Kaneko, 43, who has assumed the role of advocate for shinkansen commuters through a Web site ( homepage1.nifty.com/Mujina/shintsu.htm) on which he posts a lively assortment of news and views about his daily commute that sees him leaving his home in Shin Shirakawa, Fukushima Prefecture, at 6:56 a.m. for the 98-minute trip into Tokyo.

"The company pays for 90 percent of my commuter pass," says Kaneko, who willingly puts up with the long journey not to save money, but to maintain ties with his home town. "I've grown used to arranging my work and social life so I can always catch the last departure from Tokyo Station at 9:32 p.m. That gets me home a few minutes before 11."

Soon, though, commuters like Kaneko may not just be pouring into Tokyo Station on their way to work, as they have since 1964 when it became the Tokaido Shinkansen's home base. From autumn, a gleaming new shinkansen station opens in Shinagawa, on the capital's western side, from where access to Haneda Airport, Kawasaki and Yokohama will be greatly improved. What's more, the additional platforms will enable the maximum number of Tokaido Shinkansen departures to be increased from the present 11 an hour to 15.

Apart from likely being able to name all the nation's shinkansen stations, though, any rail fan worth their salt also knows the rolling stock itself has gone through five evolutions. The oldest, the Series 0 that weighed in at 1,000 tons, ceased production in 1985. A few of these older models, recognizable by their rounded noses, can still be found running on the Sanyo Line. The 50-ton lighter Series 100, its successor, was the last to use steel carriages; all subsequent models have been built of aluminum.

The current Series 700, rolled out in March 1999, is more than just a pretty duck-billed face. Thanks to its advanced aerodynamics, reduced weight (down to 700 tons) and other technical improvements, it consumes 16 percent less electricity than the slower Series 0 and even 7 percent less than the Series 300, which also weighs in at 700 tons.

But how fast is it, you ask? The Series 700 uses a power unit based on the 300X, a test prototype that in 1996 reached 443 kph -- a capability that for various reasons to do with infrastructure is not being exploited, and probably will not be. Speeds of that order are a decade or more away, awaiting the perfection of magnetic levitation -- known as maglev -- technology.

The concept of using magnetic levitation to build a train that floats some 10 cm above its "rails" is not new; Japan's initial project got off the ground, so to speak, in 1962, two years before the debut of the shinkansen. Then, in 1979, an early experimental version, the ML-500, hit 517 kph.

A low-flying, wingless plane

Central Japan Railways now conducts its test runs on a 42.8 km double track in Yamanashi Prefecture, where a five-car manned train set the world speed record of 552 kph per hour in 1999. This speed will have to be sustained to achieve the project's ultimate goal: a 21st century rail service, or a low-flying, wingless plane if you prefer, that can propel passengers from Tokyo to Osaka in 1 hour flat.

"The system should be capable of reaching its maximum speed about 2.5 times more quickly than a conventional railed train," says Yasuyuki Goto, an engineer engaged in maglev development at CJR's Tokyo headquarters. "Faster than that would probably not be practical, since the acceleration G-force would make passengers feel uncomfortable."

Goto pointed out that although a linear-motor system is also being tested in Germany, Japan is convinced that its superconductivity technology, which the German design lacks, will make a critical difference in terms of functionality and speed.

Without getting too technical, superconductivity refers to a phenomenon by which the electrical resistance in certain types of metals (in this case a neobium-titanium alloy) is reduced to zero when subjected to ultra-low temperatures. Eliminating resistance creates a powerful magnetic field, and the repulsion and attraction between magnets along the track and those embedded in the train body enable it to be propelled forward at very high speed.

In March 2000, a committee established by the former Ministry of Transport accepted that maglev technology in its current state is operationally feasible. That opened the way to the present stage, five years of high-speed running tests and other research efforts to ascertain reliability, durability and safety. (Onboard warning systems that respond automatically to potential dangers such as a major earthquake, are crucial, since it takes about 4 km for a maglev train, like a shinkansen, to come to a halt from maximum speed.)

News photo
The "maglev" train on the Yamanashi Prefecture test track where it set the world speed record for a train, at 552 kph. PHOTO COURTESY OF CENTRAL JAPAN RAILWAY CO.

Currently, the system is performing well, although Goto concedes with a smile that a maglev train shooting past at 550 kph sounds "pretty loud." He also dispelled this writer's own misconception that the trains would probably carry fewer passengers.

"There's no inherent limitation on the number of passengers," he said. "A maglev train should be able to carry just as many as the regular shinkansen, whose capacity is about 1,300."

To the project's detractors, who believe the new rail system would just create another, unnecessary drain on the nation's already burdened finances, its supporters argue that its technical achievements -- high-durability materials, new electric power supply/utilization technology, electric power-switching technology and superconductors, to name a few -- would be spun off to other areas.

In a 1999 interview with the PHP Institute, Hiroshi Suda, chairman of Central Japan Railways Co., stressed that the next-generation maglev train "is not merely about building one more railroad between Tokyo and Osaka. It's about what form Japan will assume in the 21st century -- a worthy, new, nation-building project that we will leave behind for future generations."

Does it matter to Japanese whether their country remains rail's No. 1? Ultimately, the decision to proceed with the Chuo Linear Express -- as the first maglev line will probably be named -- may be influenced by events outside. That is because the world's first commercially operated maglev train went into service on New Year's Day -- not in Japan or Germany, but in Shanghai, which built its line in cooperation with a Hamburg firm.

Even though the Chinese project is only a short-haul airport shuttle, Japan's bureaucrats and railway operators -- not to mention makers with an eye to potential exports -- must view its completion with a vague sense of anxiety. But ironically, it would seem that the speed of Japan's decision-making process lags far behind that of its high-tech trains.

Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.