Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train now 50 years old


By Emily Wang and Ken Moritsugu, AP

TOKYO–It was, retired Japanese railway engineer Fumihiro Araki recalls, “like flying in the sky.”

Zipping cross-country in a super-high speed train has become commonplace in many countries these days, but it was unheard of when Japan launched its bullet train between Tokyo and Osaka 50 years ago Wednesday.

The Shinkansen, as it’s called in Japan, gave a boost to train travel in Europe and Asia at a time when the rise of the automobile and the airplane threatened to eclipse it. It also was a symbol of pride for Japan, less than two decades after the end of World War II, and a precursor of the economic “miracle” to come.

The Oct. 1, 1964, inauguration ceremony was re-enacted at Tokyo Station on Wednesday at 6 a.m., complete with ribbon cutting. The first bullet train, with its almost cute bulbous round nose, traveled from Tokyo to Osaka in four hours, shaving two and a half hours off the 513-kilometer (319-mile) journey. The latest model, with a space-age-like elongated nose, takes just two hours and 25 minutes.

Araki, now 73, drove the Shinkansen briefly in the summer of 1967 as part of his training as a railway operations engineer. Last week, he slipped back in time as he sat in the driver’s seat of one of the early model bullet trains at a railway museum outside of Tokyo. He pulled a lever on the control panel, looking straight ahead as he was trained, though all he could see were other museum exhibits.

“It was like flying in the sky, it was that kind of feeling,” said Araki, the acting director of the museum. “On a clear day, you could see Mount Fuji, and riding atop the railway bridge at Hamanako lake was very pleasant. It felt like you were sailing above the sea.” A Controversial Project

Japan started building a high-speed line during World War II, but construction was halted in 1943 as funds ran out. The idea was revived in the 1950s, but many questioned undertaking such a costly project, particularly with the expansion of air travel and highways. Criticism turned to pride when construction, financed partly by an US$80 million World Bank loan, was completed in time for the Tokyo Olympics in October 1964. How Fast?