Japan's Shinkansen bullet train to mark 50th anniversary

By Hirofumi Inoue, Kyodo

Posted at Jun 24 2014 10:01 AM | Updated as of Jun 24 2014 06:01 PM

Shinkansen bullet trains are seen at Tokyo station. Photo by Reuters

NAGOYA - The Tokaido Shinkansen bullet train line is set to mark its 50th anniversary in October, having carried more than 5.5 billion passengers since its 1964 debut.

"We would like to put special emphasis on this milestone year," declared Koei Tsuge before assuming the presidency of Central Japan Railway Co., operator of the line, in April.

The project to build the shinkansen line started in April 1959, amid Japan's postwar high-growth period, and was completed in just over five years. It went smoothly thanks to a "Dangan Ressha (bullet train)" project before the start of the Pacific War to connect Tokyo and Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, over a distance of 970 kilometers within nine hours.

Although the Dangan project was suspended during the war, land lots acquired for it and completed tunnels helped facilitate the shinkansen project.

The shinkansen began operating between Tokyo and Osaka on Oct. 1, 1964, nine days before the start of the Summer Olympic Games in the nation's capital. It drastically improved the transportation capacity of the Tokaido line, which was nearing its limit, and carried more than 100 million people within the first three years of service.

Prompting the movement of people, goods and capital, the shinkansen served as the locomotive of Japan's economic growth from the 1960s. When the World Exposition was held in Osaka in 1970, some 10 million of 60 million visitors reportedly used the shinkansen.

The shinkansen not only became the foundation of Japan's economic growth by linking Tokyo and Osaka but also gave hope to Japanese people as a symbol of the nation's postwar recovery from "burnt-out ruins," said professor Satoshi Fujii at Kyoto University's Department of Urban Development.

The shinkansen has live up to its "3S" slogan for speed, safety and stability created by the late Hideo Shima, chief engineer of the project. There have been no fatal accidents involving the bullet train network, while it is known for its extremely high punctuality, despite operating at speeds of up to 270 km per hour. In fiscal 2013, delays from scheduled arrivals averaged only about 50 seconds per train.

Hiroshi Suda, 83, who served as the first president of Central Japan Railway, better known as JR Tokai in Japanese, for eight years following its establishment through the 1987 breakup of the Japanese National Railways into several privatized companies, said, "Safety is the absolute requirement, unsurpassed by anything else, and will remain so forever."

The shinkansen network now extends from Aomori in the north to Kagoshima in the south. The Hokuriku Shinkansen Line, which currently runs between Tokyo and Nagano, is due to be extended to Kanazawa by the end of fiscal 2014, while construction is under way to build the Hokkaido Shinkansen and connect Fukuoka and Nagasaki for the Kyushu Shinkansen.

JR Tokai is expected to start construction this fall of a magnetically levitated train line to connect Tokyo and Nagoya in about 40 minutes, compared with the current 100 minutes or so by the conventional shinkansen.

JR Tokai hopes to export the maglev Chuo Shinkansen technology to the United States and other countries in the future.

The maglev technology will "bring revolutionary changes to the 21st century as did the Tokaido Shinkansen 50 years ago," said Yoshiyuki Kasai, honorary chairman of JR Tokai. "It will contribute to a new lifestyle in the world."