Japan was the first country to build dedicated railway lines
for high speed travel. Due to the largely mountainous nature of the country,
the pre-existing network consisted of 3 ft 6 in gauge (1,067 mm) narrow
gauge lines, which generally took indirect routes and could not be adapted
to higher speeds. In consequence, Japan had a greater need for new high
speed lines than countries where the existing standard gauge or broad gauge
rail system had more upgrade potential. In contrast to the older lines,
Shinkansen lines are standard gauge, and use tunnels and viaducts to go
through and over obstacles, rather than around them.
Construction of the first segment of the Tokaido Shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka started in 1959. The line opened on 1 October 1964, just in time for the Tokyo Olympics. The line was an immediate success, reaching the 100 million passenger mark in less than three years on 13 July 1967 and one billion passengers in 1976.
Shinkansen Series 0
The first Shinkansen trains ran at speeds of up to 200 km/h
(125 mph), later increased to 220 km/h (135 mph). Some of these trains, with
their classic bullet-nosed appearance, are still in use for stopping
services between Hakata and Osaka. A driving car
from one of the original trains is now in the British National Railway
Museum in York.
Many further models of train followed the first type, generally each with its own distinctive appearance. Shinkansen trains now run regularly at speeds of up to 300 km/h (185 mph), putting them among the fastest trains running in the world, along with the French TGV, Spanish AVE and German ICE trains.
Originally intended to carry passenger and freight trains by day and night, the Shinkansen lines carry only passenger trains. The system shuts down between midnight and 06:00 every day to allow maintenance to take place. The few overnight trains that still run in Japan run on the old narrow gauge network which the Shinkansen parallels.
Trains can be up to sixteen cars long. With each car measuring 25 m (82 ft) in length, the longest trains are 400 m (1/4 mile) from front to back. Stations are similarly long to accommodate these trains.
In 2003, JR Central reported that the Shinkansen's average arrival time was within 0.1 minutes or 6 seconds of the scheduled time. This includes all natural and human accidents and errors and is calculated from all of about 160,000 trips Shinkansen made. The previous record was from 1997 and was 0.3 minutes or 18 seconds.
Since 1970, development has been underway for the Chuo Shinkansen, a maglev train by the RTRI of JR Central Railways. It is planned to eventually run from Tokyo to Osaka. On December 2, 2003, the 3 car maglev trainset reached a world speed record of 581 km/h.
The first derailment of a Shinkansen train in passenger service occurred during the Chuetsu Earthquake on 23 October 2004. Eight of ten cars of the Toki No. 325 train on the Joetsu Shinkansen derailed near Nagaoka Station in Nagaoka, Niigata. However, there were no injuries nor deaths among the 154 passengers.