shinkansen, bullet train
Photo: Blanscape/DreamstimeTokaido shinkansen

7 things you didn’t know about the shinkansen, the world-famous Japanese bullet trains

What you didn’t know about Japan’s favourite mode of transport and one of the most enjoyable ways to travel the country

Emma Steen

Free wifi, beautiful bento meals and spectacular window views – Japan’s shinkansen are second to none when it comes to travelling in ease and comfort. These bullet trains are notoriously fast and can take you anywhere from the former Japanese capital of Kyoto to Hiroshima (360km) or Tokyo to the ski slopes of Yamagata (348km) within the duration of a ‘Lord of the Rings’ film. 

Japan’s high-speed trains have a reputation around the world for being one of the fastest and most efficient ways to get around – but what else is there to know about the shinkansen? Here are seven fun facts about the world’s best form of travel.

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The world’s first shinkansen was launched to coincide with the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

Shinkansen is considered to be one of the pinnacles of modern Japanese technology, but it’s been around for over half a century. The world’s first bullet train was launched on the Tokaido Shinkansen line connecting Tokyo and Osaka on October 1 1964 – just a few days ahead of the first Tokyo Olympics. 

Shinkansen can travel up to 320km an hour

Japan’s bullet trains that are currently in operation can reach a maximum speed of 320km per hour, but there’s also a freight that has broken the Guinness World Record for an even higher maximum speed. With shinkansen being so essential to boosting the national economy, making them even faster is a major contribution to the advancement of Japan’s biggest cities. 

In 2015, Japan Railways Group (JR) broke the world railway speed record after the L0 Series maglev train that the company has been developing and testing over the last several years hit a speed of 603km/h (375mph). JR plans to move ahead with its record-breaking maglev by integrating it into everyday transportation for the future.


Shinkansen is the safest form of transport

Air travel is widely considered to be the safest form of transport due to the low number of accidents compared to trains or automobiles – but bullet trains aren’t like the locomotives of yesteryear. In the 57 years since the launch of the world’s first bullet train, Japan has had zero cases of death caused by shinkansen derailment or collision.

Shinkansen is so punctual the average delay time is less than a minute

Everyone knows that Japan’s train companies pride themselves on punctuality, where a shinkansen departing the platform 24 seconds earlier than scheduled will make national headlines. But even on the rare occasions when they don’t show up on time, you’re not likely to notice the delay. According to the 2020 annual report released by Japan Railways, the average delay time for the Tokaido Shinkansen in 2019 was just 12 seconds.


Shinkansen have built in earthquake-safe features

One of the biggest causes for delay or temporary suspension is the occasional earthquake that can disrupt the power sources that feed the bullet trains. Thanks to a new lithium-ion battery developed in 2019, bullet trains are now able to run on an independent power source which will allow the train to move slowly and steadily towards a safe tunnel. 

Shinkansen is the most eco-friendly way to travel

Worried about your carbon footprint? Though bullet trains may not travel as fast as planes just yet, they only consume 12.5 percent of the energy planes require and produce about 92 percent less carbon emissions per seat. JR is looking to further improve these percentages by developing more energy-efficient rolling stocks for the future. 

For perspective: the N700S model that JR Central uses in 2020 can travel at a speed of 285km per hour compared to 270km per hour on the 1992 model. Yet the 2020 model consumes just 72 percent of the energy the 1992 model required to operate.


Japan still sets the benchmark for bullet trains despite competition from around the world

When Japan’s inaugural shinkansen travelled from Tokyo to Osaka in 1964 at 204km per hour, it was the fastest train the world had ever seen. Now, similar bullet trains have popped up in different parts of the globe, harnessing high-speed technology to push for a brighter future. 

Over in China, bullet trains can now run at a maximum speed of 350km per hour. Meanwhile in the United States, Elon Musk is looking to develop a freight transport system that would allow travellers to go at a speed of 700 miles (1,127km) per hour.

Still, Japan isn’t planning on letting anyone else take the spotlight for the best mode of transport. With sights now set on bumping up the maximum speed of bullet trains across Japan as well as completing the maglev by 2045, other railway companies would have to work overtime in order to catch up to Japan.

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