The bullet train at 50

October 1, 1964 the bullet train launched in Japan. Why has it been so slow to catch on?

The World Today
2 minute READ

Christian Wolmar

Transport commentator and a candidate for Mayor of London in 2016

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.

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