High speed rail in Japan

I am just back from two weeks’ travel in Asia where I have seen the past and the future of the world’s best high speed rail. This week, my thoughts on Japan and next week, China.

It was 1964 when the Japanese introduced the world’s first “bullet train,” the Shinkansen. Using a dedicated right-of-way (no freight, no slow trains), the Tokaido line between Tokyo and Osaka today carries more than 150 million passengers a year at speeds up to 190 mph ... not the fastest in the world, but easily the busiest.

Now on its seventh generation of equipment, I rode the Nozumi Express from Tokyo to Kyoto and was amazed at the service. Like Grand Central Terminal, Tokyo’s main downtown station is a dead-end. As trains arrive, passengers disembark and uniformed cleaning crews have about 10 minutes to clean and freshen the equipment for the next run.

The Nozumi runs from Tokyo to Osaka, a distance of 314 miles, equivalent to the distance between Boston and Baltimore. And it makes that journey in 2-1/2 hours with trains every five to 10 minutes. Each 16- train can carry up to 1,300 passengers in first (“Green”) class (two by two seating) or second class (three by two … the Japanese are small).

Compare that to Amtrak with hourly Acela service in six- trainsets holding 300 passengers total. Acela’s fastest run from Boston to Baltimore is just shy of six hours with an average speed of 90 to 120 mph.

The Japanese trains are so fast there is no need for a diner or bar car. Instead, passengers maycan buy an “ekiben” boxed lunch from dozens of stores at the station. Because all seats are assigned, passengers queue up at the exact spot on the platform where their car will stop, awaiting permission to board. When the cleaning crews finish, the doors open, passengers board and the train departs … always on time, and to the second.

As the conductor collects tickets, he bows to each customer. Train crew passing through the cars always turn and bow to the passengers before going to the next car. The ride is so smooth as to not be thought possible. And arrivals and departures are to the second, with average dwell time at intermediate stations no longer than 90 seconds. And, of course, there is free Wi-Fi during the entire journey.

The first class fare on the Nozumi Express between Tokyo and Osaka is $186. On Amtrak’s Acela, the Boston to Baltimore ride costs up to $279 for business class, $405 in first class.

Japan’s Shinkansen is the grand-daddy of high speed rail, but still among the best. Next time I’ll tell you about the newest, and to my thinking, the world’s best high speed rail … in China. And I’ll recount my 11-minute ride on the world’s only commercial maglev, in Shanghai.

Jim Cameron has been a commuter from Darien for 21 years. He is chairman of the CT Metro-North/Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. Reach him at CTRailCommuterCouncil@gmail.com or trainweb.org/ct . For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com.