A Ride on Japan’s “Bullet” Train
By “Awake!” correspondent in Japan
ARRIVING at Tokyo station, we jostle our way through the crowds until we reach the platform. This is especially designed for the Shinkansen or New Trunk Line train, known to foreigners as the “bullet.” We want to visit Kyoto today; so we will board the “Hikari” Shinkansen train, the super “light” express. In a short time, our crowded train arrives, a 400-meter- (about one-fourth-mile-) long white streak set off with a blue underbody—really streamlined-looking. Its rounded front has the look of a button nose, with headlights on either side, like two staring eyes.
In just a few short minutes, the train is completely empty, having discharged a load of as many as 1,400 people. In a few more minutes, cleaning girls have picked up the small amount of litter left by the passengers, and it is announced that we can board.
We had bought our reserved seats the day before at our suburban railway station. This had taken only a minute or so. Reservations for the entire Japanese express train system are computerized, so that, when you advise the ticket clerk of your desired train, the computer either prints out your ticket for that train or, if no seats are available, provides information about the next best reservation for you. And if you say that it is suitable, it immediately prepares that ticket. Also, several of the 16 cars have “free seating,” so that you can line up for these seats if you do not have a reservation.
We are happy that we have seats on the right side of the train, for we will get a good view of Mount Fuji. This train goes so close to the mountain that you feel as if you could reach out and touch it. Notice the nice seats—three on one side and two on the other, with blue upholstery and fresh white cloths for your head. In the two special “green cars,” there are even luxury reclining seats.
While we wait for the train to start, let me tell you something about it. The Shinkansen opened in 1964 with a short line of about 515 kilometers (320 miles) from Tokyo to Osaka. Then, in 1972, the line was extended down to Okayama and in 1975 on to Kyushu, making a total of 1,176 kilometers (731 miles).
This streamlined train can reach 286 kilometers (178 miles) per hour. But for a regular run, like ours today, we will travel 210 kilometers (130 miles) per hour—still very fast. Conventional trains used to take six hours and 50 minutes for the Tokyo to Osaka trip, but at this speed it takes only three hours. You can understand, then, why this train is nicknamed the “bullet.”
A Smooth Ride
Here we go—starting out quite slowly, and gradually gaining speed. No need to hang on to anything, as there are no jerks or bumps. The “bullet” rides so much smoother than a car or a bus that you don’t realize the high speed until you look out the window and see scenery whizzing by. Even at this speed, walking in the aisles is not hard. Clearly, much thought and engineering have gone into making the “bullet” train both fast and comfortable.
Where is the clickety-clack sound usually caused by the rail joints? Well, for one thing, regular steel rails are only 25 meters (82 feet) long, but rails for the bullet are 1,500 meters (nearly a mile) long without any joints. Additionally, where the rails meet, there is a flexible joint that is designed to eliminate shock and cope with expansion and contraction.
In order to lessen outside train noise, concrete crossties and gravel form the railbeds in populated areas. But in rural areas (most of the line) a concrete slab bed is used. The rails are installed directly onto concrete bed sections, each just under five meters (16 feet) long. Interestingly, this slab bed is “floating” on a “cushion.” How so?
Well, first, the concrete bed sections are placed on the underlying concrete foundation. Then asphalt mortar is injected at high pressure through small holes from the top until the bed section rises 50 millimeters (2 inches) off the foundation. This asphalt mortar becomes a “cushion” and can absorb quite a bit of shock and noise from the “floating” bed.
Even with this type of railbed, noise from the train is one of the biggest problems for nearby residents. Many claim that they are suffering from “noise pollution.” They are fighting the “bullet” train, asking, ‘Why is it necessary to travel at such high speeds anyway?’
Thirsty? I am, too. Here come two cute uniformed girls wheeling a cart. We can buy anything from coffee to beer—and let’s get some dried squid to munch on while we analyze this train a little more.
Curves and Tunnels
Do you see the front end of the train as we round this curve? For safety reasons, the entire line is built as straight as possible in high-speed areas. The sharpest curve is over six times as broad as that on regular train lines. The “bullet” can pass any point without shock at its speed of 210 kilometers (130 miles) per hour. Also increasing the train’s stability is the wide span between rails—about 1.4 meters (4.6 feet). This is one and a third times as wide as the regular span of a little over one meter (3.3 feet).
Notice the farmers working in their rice fields? Oh, did you miss seeing them? Yes, there are many tunnels on the Shinkansen line, and our view is often blocked temporarily. An undersea tunnel presently connects the train with Kyushu, the southern island, and future plans are to have all four main islands connected by “bullet” train tunnels. If the plan to include all the islands of Japan succeeds, the trip from Tokyo to Sapporo, Hokkaido, which now takes about 17 hours, would be reduced to about a third of that time!
Here in just two hours we are already pulling into Nagoya Station. We won’t get off here, although there is a two-minute wait. Do you see how people are jumping off the train? They race to one of the small noodle shops located on the platform, gulp down a bowl of steaming noodles, and race back to their seat as a loud bell signals departure time.
Need for the “Bullet”
A lot of people, including those living next to the tracks, ask why such a high-speed train is needed in a country made up only of islands. “Bullet” advocates answer that the land area in Japan is stretched north and south, with the main industrial cities located along the Pacific coastline. In the past, improving the highways along the coast sufficed. But these soon reached their limit, with no more room for wide new roads and/or more cars.
A different means of commuting between Tokyo and Osaka, the second-largest city in Japan, became necessary. Hence, the “bullet” train was born. It is often said that Japan could not have had such rapid economic growth without the Shinkansen. Since it opened in 1964, it has carried over one billion passengers! As many as 350,000 persons ride about 260 trains daily.
A Safe Trip
Here come some more girls, this time selling ice cream. We’ll wait to eat some later, and, instead, go up to the buffet car where we can see a speedometer set up for the passengers. It indicates that we really are going 210 kilometers (130 miles) per hour. It is hard to believe, isn’t it? Such high speeds make it almost impossible for the operator to stop the train in time if he sees trouble ahead. Even if he braked immediately, the train would go another 2,000 meters (about one and a fourth miles) before it came to a halt!
Since the operators’ eyes cannot be relied on, there are no signals along the tracks. Rather, everything is controlled by an Automatic Train Control system (ATC). The entire line is divided into 3,000-meter (2-mile) blocks and the controller at the control station can follow each train on a panel. The ATC computer system sends an order to each block controlling speed on that particular block. Five different speed orders issue from the control center: 210, 160, 70 and 30 kilometers per hour, as well as stop.
When our block is receiving a 210-kilometer-per-hour order from the ATC system, the block behind us would be sending out a 30-kilometer-per-hour order, the block behind that a 70-kilometer-per-hour order, and so forth, in order to avoid rear-end collisions. And this also means that when we are traveling at 210 kilometers per hour, there are no trains at least 9,000 meters (6 miles) ahead of us.
What about a malfunction in the ATC system? These are practically nil, though once a “bug” got into the system and recorded a stationary train as traveling at full speed. All ATC systems have a backup and all electrical machines have a double backup, so that if one breaks down, another will take over. Even earthquakes are taken into consideration. Trains automatically stop when an earthquake registers a certain level on the seismograph scale.
To cope with rain, wind, snow, and so forth, there is a need to keep in constant touch with train operators and personnel at each station. A Centralized Traffic Control, or CTC system, at Tokyo’s main control office handles this aspect of safety. There you can see a panel that shows all the traffic on the entire line from Tokyo to Kyushu. Operators in the control room keep close watch on the panel and direct necessary information to the individual trains.
Recently, due to the increase of trains and traffic, the National Railway has employed an additional computer system called “Comtrac,” to complement these controllers. The Comtrac system has in its “memory” such information as track numbers, timetables and conditions at each station.
If the train schedule is thrown off for any reason, the Comtrac system will notify the operators in the control room and will automatically make a new program of trains, including restarting time and, if necessary, cancellation of trains. It can govern all the necessary places throughout the ATC system, including announcements at certain stations—a truly amazing machine!
All these precautions have given the high-speed “bullet” a very fine safety record. Since October 1, 1964, the “bullet” train has not had an accident resulting in loss of life! Always safety is put first.
Well, here we are at Kyoto Station already. Just two hours and 50 minutes! Now you can say that you have had a “ride” on Japan’s “bullet,” the train world renowned for its high speed, and the envy of many countries.