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Bullet on wheels

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On any day, at the busy Yuraku-cho commercial area of Tokyo, the Shinkansen operates with such frequency that it could be mistaken for an ordinary metro.

The Nozomi 700 series travels the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen line on the outskirts of Yokohama.
The Nozomi 700 series travels the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen line on the outskirts of Yokohama.

Vinod Jacob

The Shinkansen, considered one of the fastest trains on earth, left Tokyo exactly at 6 a.m. to reach Nagoya, 366 km away, exactly as the timetables say, at 7.39 a.m. In most countries the fastest trains have a limited prime-time schedule, but Shinkansen is different. On any day, at the busy Yuraku-cho commercial area of Tokyo, one could see the Shinkansen arrive and depart so frequently that it could be mistaken for a metro.

The Shinkansen's peak speed may not exceed the famed French TGV's. But it shows the world how consistently it can run bullet trains safely, a record which has no comparison.

The first Shinkansen train started as the Hikari 0 series. From the 100 to 700 series Nozomi, there have been many improvements. The tapered front gives it the appearance of an `aeroplane nose'. Now, the `aeroplane nose' has been replaced by the `arrow-line nose' in the recently introduced `FASTEC 360' trains. The square windows lend a sleek, futuristic appeal.

The train, travelling at a maximum speed of 300 kmph, makes it impossible for drivers to read signals. With the help of Automatic Train Control (ATC), signals and other vital information like speed are transmitted along the track and received on board. The crew cabin is very small but compact and with high visibility.

The high-speed Shinkansen

The plan to build a high-speed network between Tokyo and Osaka, Japan's second largest city, took shape way back in 1957 it took seven-and-a-half hours to traverse the 553 km between the two cities then.

Since Japan has an undulated terrain, a special track with fewer turns was required. Hence the Shinkansen track was built wider than the regular ones.

The Japan National Railways began work on the Shinkansen, which means `new trunk route', in April 1959 and completed it in five-and-a-half years.

Japan's National Rail System was privatised in 1987 and a company called JR Tokai operates the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen route between Tokyo and Osaka.

This route operates three types of Shinkansens. `Nozomi' (meaning hope), the fastest, stops only at major stations; `Hikari' (light), which is a limited stop service; and `Kodama' (echo), which stops at almost all stations.

Currently, the Hikari takes just three hours to travel from Tokyo to Osaka, while the Nozomi takes two-and-a-half hours.

Special features

The economy-class cars have five seats in a row, while the green cars have four. All trains have 16 cars each. At each station, there are markings on the platform to show exactly where each car would come to a halt. The inside of doors have monitors displaying station names, and an emergency stop button. The reclining seats are very comfortable.

All cars have satellite phones. Both Japanese and western toilets are present on board, equipped with call buzzer, seat cleaners, and cold and hot water provisions.

The car body is made of aluminium alloy to keep it lightweight and, at the same time, doubly reinforced to keep out outside noises. The bullet cars ride on air spring that uses compressed air to absorb wheel vibrations and ensure passengers travel in utmost comfort.

I watched as a group of vacationing students were hurried into the train at one station to ensure it departed on time. Railway staff stand near the entrance of each car to usher passengers inside, especially during rush hour. The Shinkansen stops for only 3-4 minutes at most stations.

The Shinkansens carry only passengers; they don't operate after midnight and resume operations at 6 a.m. every day to enable maintenance.

Amidst scenic locales

The Tokaido route from Tokyo passes through the old port town of Yokohama and along the seashore, through the towns of Odawara and Atami, famous for hot springs. It travels through a series of tunnels to the picturesque Shin-Fuji.

Hamamatsu has a beautiful lake full of boats, resort hotels and water sports. The route then turns inland through Toyohashi to Nagoya.

No to noise pollution

The Shinkansen is governed by strict noise pollution rules. The Environment Agency has directed the Shinkansen railway to keep noise levels below 60 decibel during daytime and 55 decibel at night.

The noise generated by the Shinkansen range from aerodynamic noise to noise from the air-conditioning equipment, rolling wheels, etc.

Another source of noise is when the train exits a tunnel. As it enters the tunnel it compresses air, which travels through the tunnel and exits with a noise. This has been partly minimised by providing a hood at tunnel entrances and exits. The tapered train nose also reduces pressure variations.

Sound barriers are also installed along the tracks wherever the noise exceed limits. Standing five metres from a speeding Nozomi, one could feel nothing except the sound of the train piercing the air.

The technological challenges in the Shinkansen are so vast that most train parameters are exponentially proportional to the train speed. This means that even a minor increase in train speed can affect various parameters.

The Nozomi 500 series is considered the fastest of all Shinkansens. On September 20, 2003, a promotional campaign was launched to increase train frequencies.

The Nozomi 700 series featured an eight-metre long streamer inscribed with the words `Ambitious Japan' on the sides of its cars. Now, as many as nine bullet trains operate from Tokyo to Nagoya during peak evening hour.

Picture by the author

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 19, 2005)
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