The opening of the first high-speed line, the Japanese Shinkansen, ushered in a new era of rail travel but it has taken a surprisingly long time for the concept to spread. Indeed, 50 years later, there are still barely a dozen countries that boast trains that can be described as high-speed. And while there are lots of schemes in the offing, the huge cost and long lead times are proving a barrier for their rapid spread.
The definition of high-speed train services is, loosely, lines on which passenger trains run at a top speed of at least 250kph (155mph) on dedicated tracks. The high-speed network, therefore, is the motorway system of the railways with fast services, limited stops and uninterrupted tracks. The aim behind the Japanese system, as implied by its name – Shinkansen means new trunk line – was not so much high speed as extra capacity and, in a way, the reduced journey times were an added bonus.
The bullet train at 50
October 1, 1964 the bullet train launched in Japan. Why has it been so slow to catch on?