Material marvels: The birth of the Shinkansen

Materials World magazine
1 Dec 2017

The Shinkansen, or bullet train as it is affectionately known, redefined rail transport. Making its debut in the 1960s, it presaged a new era of high-speed travel, transforming not just its host country Japan, but also the wider region and the world. Gary Peters reports.

It is 1964. The people of Tokyo are making the final preparations for the Olympic Games – an opportunity to showcase to the hundreds of thousands of visitors, and millions more watching, the best that Japan’s capital city has to offer.

For the lovers of sport, that undoubtedly focused on the action on the track and various other events that make up the Games. However, as has become more prevalent in recent times, the Games are also about developing infrastructure and legacy. And so, 1964 is also remembered for the introduction of devilishly fast trains that slashed journey times, looked like speeding bullets and re-energised a country.

The inaugural services on the 0 Series trains – called Hikari 1 and 2, and consisting of 12 cars – departed on 1 October 1964, running from the capital to Osaka, and vice versa. They ran on the newly constructed and dedicated route, the Tokaido Shinkansen. The 320-mile journey saw trains reach speeds of 130mph, reducing travel time between the cities from just under seven hours to four. That dropped to three hours just a year later, according to The Japan News. 

Tokaido Shinkansen – a history

Fast-forward to the present day and approximately 5.6 billion people have used the Tokaido route, according to the Central Japan Railway Company. If the only metric of success is ridership, then the original network has more than achieved its objective. The fact that it has spawned other high-speed routes, in Japan and abroad, is further testament to the engineering skill and vision that first sparked the idea.

In its analysis on the Shinkansen for its 50th anniversary in 2014, The Japan News revealed some intriguing facts that have been lost to time. The origins of a project to create an artery of national importance can be seen in the instigation of a study by the Railways Ministry in 1938. However, by 1943, with the Second World War in full flow, plans were halted.

By 1957, the ambition had returned, and a lecture on the subject, Possibilities for three-hour Tokyo-Osaka travel by superexpress – at which engineers from the Japanese National Railways research institute spoke – was held in Tokyo, to debate the possibilities of a train that could travel in excess of 124mph.

Shinji Sogo – commonly referred to as the father of the bullet train – was brought in as president of the Japanese National Railways Corporation to oversee the development. He secured funding from the government, but also applied to the World Bank for additional support. In 2014, Sogo’s son Shinsaku, told the Japan Times, ‘My father went to the World Bank to force Japan to commit itself. Many people were against the Shinkansen and he wanted to prevent them from halting the project.’

To further underline why Japan needed the high-speed network, Sogo spoke of the power of transport and infrastructure, stating that if Japan was indeed an ‘underdeveloped country’, a new, improved railway was obvious. He added to World Bank representatives, ‘When you build a new house, it’s natural to furnish it with new facilities. And when you build a new railway, it makes sense to use the newest technology available.’ 

In 1959, the ground-breaking ceremony took place at the Shin-Tanna Tunnel, located between Atami and Mishima stations in Shizuoka Prefecture. Sogo reportedly said, ‘We'd like to build the most efficient railway ever, beyond what the rest of the world has been able to achieve. We pledge to develop a railway that can meet expectations as one for the people of a new era.’

A feat of engineering

By the early 60s, testing was well underway – managing to reach a speed of 159mph. Sogo’s dream, however, had a sour ending, as he and Hideo Shima, one of the chief engineers, were forced to resign due to budget overruns. Neither received an invite to the 1964 inauguration ceremony, although their work helped pave the way for a new form of transport. 

As mentioned, the Tokaido route bred other similar high-speed networks in Japan, strecthing across the country – the Tohoku Shinkansen, Hokkaido Shinkansen and Kyushu Shinkansen, to name a few. It’s important, therefore, to analyse how the system came into being from an engineering point of view.

 Determination and success at securing funds only took the programme so far. The trains would have to do what they said on the tin, travel at high speeds, maintain safety at such speeds and keep noise to a minimum.

One of the first decisions was to keep curves on the track to a minimum, making it easier to maintain the high speed. Older trains already in use were also prevented from sharing the Tokaido track, as that would cause unecessary delays.

Tokaido had a standard track gauge of 1,435mm, in contrast to the standard Japanese 1,067mm gauge. In addition, the sleepers were made from steel-reinforced concrete, rather than wood, which was common, and were then mounted on rubber cushions, which reduced noise and vibration. A 25kV AC overhead power supply was also installed.

The instantly recognisable shape of the 0 Series was inspired by aircraft, making the front of the train more aerodynamic, thereby reducing air resistance. However, perhaps the two most important developments were those to prevent vibration and devise an automated control system.

For the former, Tadashi Matsudaira was tasked with creating a chassis that could withstand vibrations during high speeds. ‘When conducting tests with a model, we could see the phenomenon of serpentine motion – which made a chassis shake from left to right – when it reached speeds in excess of 200kph [124mph],’ Matsudaira told reporters in 2000. He subsequently took inspiration from the automotive industry, using air springs to dampen the impact.

The automation was also a challenge. Today, automatic train control (ATC) is ubiquitous, and there are various formats used in the industry. For the Shinkansen, Hajime Kawanabe, who had been an engineer with the Imperial Japanese Army, created a system whereby signals set maximum speeds for every three kilometres of track. In addition, trains were designed to brake automatically if they surpassed the limit. 

As to be expected, tension was high – safety had to be the priority, and so, for the first year of operation, the 0 Series trains did not hit top speeds of 130mph. This policy was implemented to ensure the rail bed and new track had settled on its foundations. Since commencing operations, the Shinkansen has had an enviable safety record – no passenger has died due to a derailment. It is also famed for its punctuality, with an average delay of less than one minute.

Domestic expansion

As mentioned, Japan has added more routes over the years – it now has 3,041km of high-speed track in operation (well behind the world leader, China, which has a huge 26,783km). 

Inevitably, the construction of additional routes has led to the development of new technology, engineering, and rolling stock. By 1985, the 100 Series trains were introduced. These were double-deckers and featured a more pointed front end. 

In the early 1990s, the 300 Series Nozomi, which was 25% lighter than its predecessors, thanks to an aluminium shell, reached a speed of 167mph, meaning a journey of just two and a half hours from Tokyo to Osaka. The 500 Series, unveiled in 1997, could run at 186mph, running between Osaka and Kyushu in under two hours. The 700 followed two years later, and in 2007 a modified version, the N700, made its debut. This was complete with an updated ATC, allowing the train to travel through 2,500m radius curves at high speed. When approaching a curve, the system inclines the trainset, at an angle of one degree, toward the inside. A new train hood was also implemented to reduce external noise, alongside an improved pantograph, which connects the roof of the train to overhead wires.

Further additions were made in the N700A, particularly on the control system to maintain top speed on each section of track. A host of other developments have occurred on other routes – for example, the E Series and W7 Series on the Hokuriku Shinkansen, and the H5, which operates on the Tohoku and Hokkaido Shinkansen lines.

However, not content with just refining rolling stock, Japan has a bold plan for a maglev route – using magnetic levitation to move vehicles. This will be known as the Chuo Shinkansen, running between Tokyo and Nagoya. The project is currently under construction, with a proposed completion date of 2027. Reports suggest that over 80% of the route will be tunnels, with a potential top speed of 315mph.

Exporting technology

Exporting is also high on the agenda. India will use Japanese expertise and Shinkansen technology for its high-speed line from Ahmedabad to Mumbai, which could be completed by 2022. Japan will reportedly provide up to 80% of the financing.

It is, however, just one success in what has been a difficult nut to crack. Taiwan’s high-speed railway has used Shinkansen technology since it opened in 2007, but Japan has to fend off competition from China whenever projects emerge.

Nevertheless, the engineering feat that Sogo and his colleagues pulled off over 50 years ago has stood the test of time. High-speed rail is becoming more widespread, but it was the Shinkansen that set the tone for what has followed.