Nihon Bullet train-what it means for public transport

Updated: November 25, 2021 6:49 PM

In a recent instructive episode, a bullet train driver’s one-minute delayed arrival at a depot earned him a fine of yen 85, reduced to yen 43 by citing human error.

The Shinkansen has been posting healthy profits. The Shinkansen technology including its software that supports the trains, and the famous punctuality is a valuable Japanese export.The Shinkansen has been posting healthy profits. The Shinkansen technology including its software that supports the trains, and the famous punctuality is a valuable Japanese export.

By (Mrs) Amb Narinder Chauhan

35 years ago, I took the Shinkansen, colloquially called the Bullet train, from Tokyo station to Kyoto/Nara and Osaka. I was on posting to Japan and the journey was part of my study tour. Travelling at a speed of 210 kph to cover 500 km was a divine experience. At that speed, everything outside was a blur. It was as if one was on an airplane rather than in the train. In time the speed limit rose to 320 kph. As the train leaves the station its rolling on wheels; but as it speeds up, the wheels retract, and the power of magnets allows it to hover four inches above the ground.It feels as if one is floating. It is an exceptionally unique and efficient travel experience.Shinkansen literally means the new Trunk line.

Post WWII Tokyo was in ruins, and its rebuilding progressed without any master plan. All industries gravitated to the city; young people flocked to Tokyo for work. As they started families, they were encouraged to buy homes. The only land they could afford, however, was outside the already densely populated city. This lay at the very center of the huge reconstruction effort: true to its name, Shinkansen’s purpose was to bring people to the capital. At 10 am on 1 Oct 1964 Tokyo witnessed history, which like the Olympics not only heralded Japan’s recovery from the destruction of WWII, but the beginning of what wouldbe Japan’s stratospheric rise as an economic superpower.The opening date was chosen to be on time for the Tokyo Olympics that opened on October 10. Over its more than 50-year history the network of Shinkansen trains has carried over 10b passengers with only one derailment incident in 2004 caused by the severe earthquake.High speed railways in other parts of the world may have seen higher speeds than that, but in a mountainous country with little level ground, for Japan’s Shinkansen to run at these speeds in indeed incredible. It travels through tunnels and via ducts to go through obstacles rather than around them, reducing travel time. The Hokkaido Shinkansen uses a 50 km long undersea tunnel! To get around Japan, ride the Shinkansen!

I have personally experienced the joy of travel by Japan’s public transport, which is the cleanest, the most courteous in the world, run by uniformed, be-gloved men and women who still epitomize a hallowed Japanese work ethic. Japan gifted buses to Belgrade city, where I was posted decades later, their only condition was that the city should keep the buses clean! I saw for myself the rush hour in Tokyo that has been made famous worldwide by images of station employees pushing commuters into packed train cars so the doors would shut. Markets mushroom both above and underground to enable commuters like me to shop at stations on the way home: I picked up gloves, coats, leggings, socks etc. which I still treasure for their quality. Its innovative streak makes Japan a shopper’s delight.

Vitally, the trains run on time, all the time. This is not just a matter of pride, but a necessity given the huge number of people that must be moved. Transfers are timed to a split second. The Shinkansen is no exception, as exemplified by the teams of pink attired women who descend on the train as soon as it arrives at its terminal and in five minutes leave it spotless for the return trip. I used to time my watch, as is the case with Swiss trains. In fact, after a while, I stopped using the wristwatch as the clocks in Japan are ubiquitous.The Japanese punctuality and precision are the envy of the world.

In a recent instructive episode, a bullet train driver’s one-minute delayed arrival at a depot earned him a fine of yen 85, reduced to yen 43 by citing human error. However, he has sued the Japan Railways not only for yen 43 but also a princely sum of Yen 2.2 million in damages for emotional torment. The essence is that a driver charged with driving a vehicle at 320 kph and to the strictest of schedules made a mistake. This incident shows it requires only the tiniest of punishments to instill the appropriate level of fear or discipline. The Japan Railway attracts the best among Japan’s school and university graduates;the recent test run of an autonomous bullet train deemed equal to a ‘human’, might suggest that in future the trains will be run by robots?

The Shinkansen has been posting healthy profits. The Shinkansen technology including its software that supports the trains, and the famous punctuality is a valuable Japanese export.

The National High Speed Rail Corporation Ltd (NHSRCL) has been set up as a Special Purpose Vehicle for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad high speed rail project with operating speed at 320kph with Japanese technology. With its construction India will join the elite club of 15 nations having this sophisticated technology. The 750-seat bullet train is expected to cost $17b or 110,000 crores, loaned from Japan. The current fastest train is Rajdhani Express at 160 kph. Yes, we are long overdue for some major improvement in our railway technology and Shinkansen is a step in the right direction. The project that was initially targeted for completion byDecember 2023, will now be completed by 2028, owing to Covid Pandemic and land acquisition concerns for the section which falls in Maharashtra. However, a portion of this line from Surat to Bilimorais planned to be opened by 2026.The project will be a combination of elevated, underground and a 7 km long undersea tunnel. One can’t wait!

The world’s current fastest trains, however, will take a backseat when commuter transportation becomes available in the coming years. The Shinkansen that has gradually evolved over more than 50 years will soon undergo a dramatic transformation with the Chuo Shinkansen.The original goal of the Maglev project was to produce a train that could cover the route from Tokyo to Osaka in less than an hour, which will be achieved by 2027. Over 80% of the route will be located underground, passing under urban sprawl and mountains. Maybe to enjoy the landscape you may have to explore other options!

The word Maglev is a combination of two words: Magnetic and levitation. The magnetic levitation or the floating of the train is achieved using an electrodynamic suspension system, or EDS. The rails or guideways contain two sets of cross connected metal coils wound into a “figure eight” pattern to form electromagnets. On the train itself are superconducting electromagnets, called bogies. When stopped, the train rests on rubber wheels. To begin motion, the train moves forward slowly on these wheels, allowing the magnets beneath the train to interact with those of the guideway. Once the train reaches 150 kph or 93 mph, the magnetic force is strong enough to lift the train 100 mm or 4 inches off the ground, eliminating friction to allow for increasingly high speeds. The same magnetic forces that lift the train also move it forward and keep it centered within the guideway. This is the same technology used by Tesla’s Hyperloop, which makes the ride smooth and the train especially safe. The Japanese Maglev has done test runs at 500 kph. The average cost of construction of the train and the attendant logistics is $11 million per mile or $ 530b.

India will not get the latest Maglev bullet trains. Looks like I will have to revisit Japan to ride them.

(The author is a former Indian ambassador and a former envoy to Japan. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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