Writing a comprehensive history upon the origins of Japan’s Shinkansen is a large project indeed – and few in the English world have sought to undertake such a task with the exception of Dr. Christopher Hood who is an expert on Japan and has penned a notable history of the Shinanksen. I’ve only read the extracts of this work which is available on Google – and have found most of the other published work in English rather inaccessible – unless one is a professional academician or a recognised historian – which I am neither. Yet I really wanted to learn more about how the world’s first high speed railway began and that is how all this began – but how should I undertake this task as I didn’t even know Japanese?
Being a mere mortal as opposed to a qualified historian however I still desired to write something that would be widely accessible in plain English as far as possible yet cover the origins of the Shinkansen and its construction and operations in considerable depth. The desire to do this in fact came about as a result of my other posts which I have written on Japan’s high speed railways, in fact the first post I wrote on the Shinkansen it was quite soon after that this comprehensive research began and I spent months on this project. It wasn’t one day, it wasn’t one week but months of scouring possible sources.
And as a lousy writer and not being good in any way at putting stuff together or explaining things properly, the writing of this was a complete nightmare like all my blogs are. But I persevered.
In my earlier and initial research on the Shinkansen, I found so few construction pictures which rather disappointed me because I really wanted to know how the work had been undertaken and just reading about it wasn’t enough. Even in that respect there was in fact little in the way of comprehensive information unless one had dedicated access to that and because I wasnt an academican who had special access to some of the sources on the Internet, I turned to what were largely Japanese online sources and used these instead, as well as stuff from the World Bank and other organisations and individuals.
These were vast in their offerings and ranged from official to personal accounts as well as official histories including letters, surveys, scientific investigations of the steel wheel/steel rail interface at high speed and so on. but were written almost entirely in Japanese. That made my research rather slow going, however I developed a methodology (thanks to Google) in terms of finding and translating this stuff because these sources do illustrate the progress of the world’s first ever high speed line better than any other sources than I have found.
It was from this considerably in depth research that I managed to write a substantial history of the origins of the Shinaksen way back before that line was built, going back to the 1920s when the original Tokyo to Osaka railway (the classic Tōkaidō line) was suffering considerable problems because the line was narrow gauge yet covered a vast distance and served a sizeable proportion of Japan’s population. In those days the Tōkaidō line wasn’t seen as fit for purpose – and in answer to those concerns the subsequent introduction of super expresses with some very fast transit times on the narrow gauge in fact helped to build the foundations for the world’s first ever high speed railway.
What I have written is by and large a substantial amount of stuff not featured in the English Internet part of the world and certainly not to be found on any English format blog anywhere. Thus without any further ado here’s the first instalment of my history of the Tokyo to Osaka route in terms of both the classic Tōkaidō railway and the New Tōkaidō Line.
Map of the Tōkaidō Shinkansen showing the main stations.
First, a little bit of additional information which I think is important. Yes I know I don’t have communication of any sort in the way others do (which is why I suffer harassment from others) nor do I know any languages other than written English – but I tried my best. Second, the whole of this series of posts consists of around 14,000 words. It means there’s at least six parts to the work covering a very comprehensive history of the lines between Tokyo and Osaka from the 1920s to the mid sixties.
I’ve often wondered what ‘Tōkaidō Line’ actually refers to. Was it the fact it originated out of Tokyo or what? Its in fact an area of the country that lies along its east coast of Japan – The Tōkaidō. The major roadway along this populous coastal part of Japan is known as the Tōkaidō Road and variously it means the East Sea Road or the East Coast Road. In terms of trains it means the East Coast Railway thus the New Tōkaidō Line means the New East Coast Line.
The New Tōkaidō Line (and other aspects of the Shinkansen too) have been explored in previous posts and I’ve noted their exemplary construction, structure, design, excellent maintenance work at all levels of management and staff, and the strict timekeeping that is practised. Everything is maintained in top condition and the trains themselves average a delay of just half a second delay each per year. The delays include the effects of weather phenomenon such as typhoons and heavy snow! It is things like this that holds the western world in awe of the Japanese’s way of building and maintaining high speed railways.
The surprise I found during my research is that Japan first proposed high speed trains many decades earlier! We begin our story by looking at the state of the railways in Japan during the 1920s when the country really started thinking about how its trains could be made to go much faster…
In those days trains between Tokyo and Osaka took over eleven and half hours at an average speed of 53 kmh or 32mph for the roughly 370 miles between the two cities. The Ministry of Railways described this as ‘deplorable’ especially when they saw the speeds those lines in the west could achieve. Railways in England, Europe and the US were achieving considerably high speeds with some expresses maintaining an average of sixty or seventy miles per hour along their entire journey. The Ministry of Railways wondered if Japan could do the same. In due course the Ministry drew up plans for super express trains between Tokyo and Osaka and the travel times between the two cities would be drastically cut. The fact it was a narrow gauge railway wasn’t going to deter them from achieving the task!
Class C53 – and the later super streamlined Class C55 which replaced these. The New Tōkaidō Line’s engineer Hideo Shima (whom we read more about later) was involved in the design of the 55’s. Source: You Tube
The first of these super expresses began in 1929. How this was achieved is the fastest steam locomotives that were available in the country at the time got allocated to these new super trains. The steam locomotives were the Japanese class 51s or 53s which could just about attain a top speed of 70 mph. The only stops en route were at Yokohama, Nagoya and Kyoto and the times achieved in the down direction was 8 hours and 20 minutes and slightly faster in the up direction. By 1930 the services were well established and set a new trend in rail travel on the narrow gauge, something other countries with systems as the Cape Gauge (aka the three foot six inch gauge) haven’t quite managed.
It is said the first services actually began in September 1929 between Tokyo and Shimonoseki which served Osaka en route. From 1930 a regular dedicated express service began from the capital as far as Osaka. The services were known as the Super Tsubame Express. Some of the services ran non stop from Tokyo to Nagoya (366 km or 227 miles – a little more than five hours running time) and the locomotives had to have a second tender in order to be able to perform this work.
The classic Tōkaidō line is very steeply graded and even to keep those times a number of ingenious methods had to be devised to sustain the trains’ rapid momentum on the line’s steepest banks. Banking engines of equal prowess were used on these sections, with just 30 seconds allocated for these engines to attach to the super expresses. Originally for a month they coupled up to the expresses whilst on the move and although this was successful it was ultimately decided upon a very brief stop for safety reasons. No doubt it was a very fast operation involving staff that had been highly trained to do it.
This very precise and split second timing had to be necessary of course but it enabled much faster transit times to be achieved and the result on the steepest sections of the line meant speeds of up to 80kmh/50mph could be attained. The banking engines of course detached whilst on the move as has been practice elsewhere.
From this it can be seen how the dedication for a very accurate and split second timing arose and this became crucial to the Japanese railway system – and a defining factor in the operation of the Shinkansen itself.
A Class C62 locomotive on a Tsubame Express circa 1954. Source: Wikipedia
It was a very difficult job involving split timing of trains, much upgrading of the locomotives, their water supply, the track involved and crewing turns, but it was done. The Tōkaidō Line was in fact electrified during the 1930s but the entire route to Osaka wasn’t fully under the wires for two more decades thus it was the dedicated steam engines that maintained these super fast timings. During that time the locomotives were vastly improved and thus better able to manage the very strict timings, with notable locomotives including the Class C59s and C62s,
The biggest improvement on the original 3 foot 6 inch gauge Tōkaidō line was the Tanna tunnel which opened in 1934. It was a substantial upgrade but not wholly sufficient in terms of providing a full and comprehensive service to this very populous part of Japan. It did however allow the expresses to achieve even faster times.
A result of these early attempts was that the work had exercised the railway engineers’ minds in regards to the limitations of the country’s narrow gauge railway system. From there thoughts turned to the possibility of using a wider gauge. At this time only a handful of Japanese railways used standard gauge and this was rather seen as an expensive option in a country where nearly all its lines were of the ‘Cape Gauge.’
The huge Tanna tunnel opened on 1st December 1934. A test train emerges from the 7km bore. As the picture shows electrification came early to the tracks of the Tōkaidō line. Source: Twitter
By 1938 plans had been drawn up for a super fast line from Tokyo to Shimonoseki. Trains would attain a maximum speed of 160 km / h (100mph) and the entire journey would take 9 hours. The press named this new railway as the Dangan Ressha (or ‘the bullet train.’) Over the years it was debated whether it should be built to the standard gauge or even wider.
Once those proposals had been made in 1939, a noted rail engineer by the name of Shigenari Oishi and the then head of main line research (which was established to build new trains and even new railway routes) took it upon himself to walk the entire 985km between Tokyo and Shimonoseki in order to check personally the state of the present railway and work out the alignments along which a new line could possibly be built.
Shigenari Oishi – who walked the proposed Shinkansen route twice over to plan a possible course for its construction!
The specifications that were agreed upon in 1941 included standard gauge, a minimum curve radius of 2500 m and a maximum grade of 10 %. The loading gauge was to be 4800 mm height with a maximum width of 3400 mm. The trains were to be hauled by locomotives at speeds up to 200kmh, the journey between Tokyo and Osaka taking 4 and half hours.
Construction began in 1941 but was eventually stopped because of the war. In the fifties when the project was resurrected, Oishi took it upon himself to walk, for a second time, the entire 500 plus km between Tokyo and Osaka in order to determine where the now projected and more advanced Shinkansen should be built. He was one of three JNR engineers to receive in 1966 an Elmer Sperry award for the construction of the New Tōkaidō Line. Hideo Shima (more on him later) and Matsutaro Fujii (JNR’s chief engineer) were the other two.
In 1966 Elmer Sperry awards were given to Matsutaro Fujii, Hideo Shima and Shigenari Oishi. Source: Google Books
As we saw, under the direction of Shigenari Oishi planning of the New Tōkaidō Line began in 1939 and continued well into WWII before work was ultimately abandoned. The Nihonzaka tunnel, begun in 1941, was the only one on the new route to be completed and that was achieved by 1944.
In that same year additional land for the line was purchased but not built upon. The total amount of the land purchased at that time meant at least 95 km of new railway could be built. However in the face of insurmountable difficulties – including the fact the country was at war – it was ultimately decided to abandon the project.
This left a partially built trackbed with two tunnels, one completed at Nihonzaka and the other partially completed at New Tanna.
The partially finished Shintanna (or New Tanna) Tunnel was begun in 1942. Work was abandoned in January 1943. At least a kilometre of this 7km tunnel either end was built. Source: Gearpress
When the war had ended Japan’s railways were in a quite poor state. Eighty per cent of it was in the red and in need of repair or upgrading. It was said at the time the outdated railway network would soon be moribund as the passage below describes…
Just like horse-drawn carriages and sailing ships were taken over by trains and steamships in the beginning of the 19th century the latter half of the 20th century is the age of automobiles and airplanes, and now the railway is on the road to decline and extinction.
The Japan railways network was given a new identity in 1949. The Ministry of Railways devolved their responsibility to the new Japan National Railways (JNR.) In due course it was decided to give JNR more flexibility in determining how its railways should be run – and by 1955 JNR was given full autonomy in order that it could be free from government indecision.
C62 and the Class 80 EMU (aka ‘Shonans’) – two of the Tōkaidō Line’s noted express rolling stock on exhibition at the Kyoto railway museum. Source: Wikipedia
By the time the fifties had arrived Japan was experiencing a boom in revival of fortunes, meaning research, development and industry was on a huge upward trend. This in turn doubled the demands on rail travel throughout the Tōkaidō system.
Despite further upgrades (including electrification of the entire Tōkaidō route by November 1956) it was clear the present railway could not sustain this sudden increase in demand especially as the region was experiencing a huge revival in fortunes and more people were living in the area whilst new industries and services were being established near or along the route of the existing railway.
Series 151 ‘Kodama’ express. Source: Imgur
In 1950 ‘Shonans’ (Series 80 EMUs) were introduced on the Tōkaidō Line. These were 16 car trains intended for long distance express services and these were designed by Hideo Shima. These consisted of an advanced electric traction system and also bogies with additional stability to provide for a smoother ride. Despite teething problems these Shonans were soon noted for their excellent speeds. By 1956 these were being used on express services between Tokyo and Nagoya – a distance of 366km. The problem with these was they were not seen as prestigious as the current locomotive hauled expresses.
From their experience of the Series 80, Japanese National railways sought an ever faster and more luxurious electric multiple unit – the famous Kodama expresses (Series 151.) These were introduced in late 1958 on the Tōkaidō Line and in due course the fastest of these were able to run from Tokyo to Osaka in just 6 hours 30 minutes.
In the midst of all these improvements on Japan’s premier narrow gauge line, it was Shinji Sogō, JNR’s fourth president, who fought to ensure greater modernisation of the railways which had also included the Tōkaidō’s electrification and more powerful and faster steam locomotives. He became president of Japanese National Railways in 1955 and the scene was thus set for the world’s first ever high speed railway.
Original plans for the New Tōkaidō line 1955. Tokyo at extreme right. Osaka centre, and Shimonoseki at left. Source: Coqtez Blog
Sogō was proud of the railways and the valuable work they performed, but he knew this alone was not enough if the railways were to survive. In his opinion a new railway had to be built. It wouldn’t be a competitor but rather strongly complementary to the older railways. The plans for the New Tōkaidō Line were submitted in 1955. Sogō strongly believed the railways, with the right determination and approach, could compete with both cars and planes, and the New Tōkaidō Line was part of that plan. Work immediately was put underway to plan the new railway.
Shinji Sogō performed a major ceremony at the entrance to the New Tanna tunnel in 1959.
The New Tanna ceremony marked commencement of the work to build what would be the world’s first ever high speed railway – including parts of that earlier route built in the 1940s. By the time construction had started the focus was upon the Tokyo – Osaka section as a dedicated high speed route. The section from Osaka westwards, including Shimonoseki, would be deferred and this later became the San’yō Shinkansen – which was of course extended to Hakata.
The New Tanna tunnel again – during the ceremony by JNR chairman Shinji Sogō to launch construction of the high speed railway. 20th April 1959. Source: Coqtez Blog
The New Tanna tunnel, at 7958 m, would be the longest on the new line.
The cover of JNR’s April 1958 report for the new line between Tokyo and Osaka – ‘Construction of the Tōkaidō Wide Gauge Shinkansen.’ Source: Kiki Life
It is probably assumed by most the Shinkansen was built without any opposition. In fact there was considerable opposition to it. Around 50,000 households, a huge number in those days, were evicted to make way for the new line. There was a number of attempts to sabotage the works and attempts to cause derailments. As a result the government urgently passed new laws carrying very severe penalties for anyone trying to interfere with the new line.
The opposition campaign lobbies against the Shinkansen. Source: Moro Miya Station
Despite the very daunting task ahead in building a new line and the opposition involved, Sogō began to assemble a team of top experts. One of these was Hideo Shima who we have read about earlier. He had recently left the railways after achieving many changes including the introduction of of the Shonan and Kodama express multiple units. Sogō urged Shima back into the fold and it was Shima who helped to design the Shinkansen’s high speed electric multiple units.
To recap, Shima had originally begun his work on the railways by helping to design some of the most powerful steam locomotives for the narrow gauge, a most impressive work because these early efforts helped to put the Japanese railways back on track.
The Class C62’s of which Shima had a hand in designing, were extremely powerful and achieved excellent transit times on the Tōkaidō main line. Source: Trans World Express
One of the greater successes of Shima’s earlier work was the Class C62 locomotives which mainly hauled the Tsubame expresses between Tokyo and Osaka. The journey between the two cities (a distance of just under 600 km or 370 miles) was ultimately achieved in just 7 hours 30 minutes with the C62s. One of these broke the world record for narrow gauge steam with a speed of 129kmh/80mph.
However to progress even further, Shima had of course realised simply replacing the splendid steam locomotives with diesels or electric locomotives merely wasn’t enough due to the unique conditions of the Japanese railways. Hence the Shonans and Kodamas. Electric multiple units had so far been seen as a concept useful only for the slow and very busy urban sections of railway but Shima changed all that.
Early representation of the new high speed multiple unit which would be known as the ‘Super Dream Express.’
Other aspects of the new high speed trains needed new insight too, and for that reason Sogō enlisted the help of Tadanao Miki, an aviation expert – whose work had included design of the dreaded kamikaze planes widely used during world war two – something he rued in later life. However his expertise was needed to procure the new high speed trains’ design – especially the issue of aerodynamics. No surprise it soon was a train that sort of looked like a plane!
One other aviation expert was brought in and this was Tadashi Matsudaira, an accomplished aircraft engineer. One of his specialities was the role of vibrations in the structure of an aeroplane. Vibrations could compromise the integrity of an aircraft’s structure. Matsudaira was a pioneer in this field, which lead to many improvements in aircraft design.
It is both Miki and Matsudaira who therefore came up with the advanced engineering requirements that would be needed to build the Super Dream Express and much of this work was a next level advancement of their previous aviation expertise.
Matsudaira had the job of trying to find ways of providing a stable means of keeping high speed trains on the track and how the trains themselves reacted to the tracks. He had originally became involved in the railways by way of being asked to investigate an accident that occurred during July 1947, one for which the railway held no clue as to how it happened.
From top clockwise: The dedicated team which consisted of Shinji Sogō, Hideo Shima, Tadashi Matsudaira and Tadanao Miki. Source: Armchair Japanophile
Matsudaira examined the wreckage from that 1947 accident. He critically analysed the damaged track. He soon discovered there was a snake like effect where one bogie starts becoming unstable, which causes a chain reaction along the train as each of its bogies too becomes unstable. What it meant was under those circumstances eventually the track beneath the train failed completely and derailment occurred.
He recognised the symptoms. It occurred in planes too. The faster a train or a plane went the more the whole thing oscillated. A plane could break up in the air because of this, whilst on a train the wheels and bogies oscillated, in turn oscillating the carriages and derailments became likely. The phenomenon is what we all know in the railway world as ‘hunting.’
Here’s a video showing some examples of these tests on the narrow gauge – these experiments eventually contributed towards the stability which is most exemplary on the Shinkansen’s trains.
Tadashi Matsudaira with a test model EMU car which was used to test the stability of bogies at high speeds.
The French themselves later found this problem themselves. Their experiments to develop a high speed train in the mid-fifties led to the record runs of 331kmh/206mph in March 1955 – which resulted in the track becoming extremely distorted and rendered practically useless – and they thought they were the first to discover this. Eventually the problem was too recognised as the aforementioned ‘hunting’ – yet this was something Matsudaira had been working on for nearly a decade. The Japanese were very ahead of the French in terms of developing high speed rail vehicles that could stay on the track. At the time of the French high speed trials Matsudaira’s work was completely unknown to Europe.
On May 30th 1957 a lecture was held in Tokyo with the title ‘Super Dream Express Train – possible 3 hours between Tokyo and Osaka’ and the meeting detailed the means of achieving such a high speed line as long as it was ‘wide gauge.’ That year things began to speed up and the ball rolled. By 1959 the basic concept for a new high speed railway had been agreed and the Japanese government authorised the project.
Despite this authorisation, work had to continue to develop extremely stable high speed trains. This was done in collaboration with Hideo Shima and experiments were conducted with high speed trips on the narrow gauge railways before moving onto the Shinkansen. These included a modified Kodama Express 151 Series EMU in 1959 (picture below) which achieved 163kmh/101mph, assisted by the use of specialised bogies.
The Kodama express train on its way to break the record for high speeds on the narrow gauge. 31st July 1959. This can be seen on You Tube.
With that particular experiment concluded it was soon known the new high speed railway would be able to achieve speeds of 200kmh or more. It meant timings between Tokyo and Osaka would no doubt be in the region of around three hours – as had been envisaged just two years earlier.
The route of the new railway would generally follow the classic Tōkaidō Line for it was meant to be a complement to that earlier line rather than being a competitive route. This meant passengers would be able to use the new line and then switch to a classic train for the remainder of their journey where necessary.
Map I adapted to show how the New Tōkaidō Line would follow the classic route. The 12 original Shinkansen stops are shown. The section from Kozu to Numazu via Gotemba was the original Tōkaidō route before its diversion along the Pacific via Odawara and Atami.
Before the line could be built that one major obstacle still stood in its way – money! Sogō clearly had pulled off agreement to getting his high speed railway built. From 1959 onward, marked by the New Tanna tunnel ceremony, things were certainly progressing. Sogō’s team were working on designs showing how the line’s trains and stations would look and it was envisaged the line would be ready for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The one big stumbling block was the finance. Japan National Railways simply couldn’t afford such an expensive undertaking. How would Sogō get round this….? We find out in the next instalment of this series!
Continued in Part Two of the Tokyo to Osaka Line: A history.
Other posts in the series:
The last three (never published) are focused on specific aspects of the Tōkaidō Shinkansen: