The Tōkaidō Shinkansen

The Tōkaidō Shinkansen

While we in the UK battle wits over whether a new high speed railway should be built or not, I thought it would be a good idea to do a feature on the world’s first ever high speed railway – the New Tōkaidō Line. It was originally planned in 1940 albeit with lower speeds. Although it was partially built war put paid to these plans. The idea was resurrected by Shinji Sogō, then president of the Japanese National Railway who made sure the line’s construction went ahead despite misgivings. The railway was designed by Hideo Shima. Unfortunately both Sogō and Shima resigned in 1963 when it was discovered the project had incurred huge cost overruns. The railway was however completed in time for the 1964 Olympics.

There were 3,000 bridges and 67 tunnels which had to be built over a length of 320 miles (515km) of new railway! There was concern about the costs of these alone and it was for that very reason JNR’s president, Sogō, tried to keep the fullest costs unawares by way of clever accounting as well as claiming the new railway was in fact an ‘upgrade.’ His biggest fear was if public money was not forthcoming there wouldn’t be a high speed line. And if there wasn’t one built well unfortunately the railways would simply have no renaissance of any sort. And that meant it would be time to give way to the motor car!

The memorial to Shinji Sogō, who conceived the New Tōkaidō Line. This monument is sited at the end of platforms 18/19 in Tokyo station. Source: Twitter

Plans for the new line were initially drawn up in 1956. Government approval was authorised on 19th December 1958 and construction began on 20th April 1959. Although the JNR had begun construction of the line in 1959 little external finance was forthcoming until 1961, when in May of that year, the World Bank issued a loan for $80 million towards the projected cost of the new $548 million line. The Japanese Government (in conjunction with the World Bank) were then essentially happy to contribute a huge part of the costs of building the new line. Had the true costs (totalling $920 million by the time the line had been finished) been known the government would have resisted. (There’s far more to the actual financing of the 1960s high speed line than this but let’s keep it simple ok!)

The 320 mile long railway was completed in less than five years, which considering the terrain it had to traverse, it was an amazing achievement. Very fortunately despite the cost overruns, the railway became a huge success and the negative expenditure (the cost overruns) that had arisen were very soon mitigated. The New Tōkaidō Line exceeded all expectations and it has almost single handed boosted the fortunes of the Japanese railway system.

Not only that it has encouraged a huge turn-round for many of the worlds railways and even Europe was soon utilising high speed railways, starting with France in 1981. This was especially at a time when it was thought the car would become king and motorways would be the main transport arteries of the future.

The New Tōkaidō Line is now celebrating its 56th year of operation.

The New Tōkaidō Line – a product of wisdom and effort. The plaque can be seen at Tokyo station. Source: Wikipedia

Can the British design, build and maintain a new dedicated high speed railway just 140 miles long? I think not – especially when we look at these fantastic examples of high speed railways in East Asia – and compare the timescales of construction with that which we are thinking of in terms of building HS2. For a start the cost overruns for the UK will be immensely exorbitant.

Let us remember one thing, the New Tōkaidō Line was built with a much simpler engineering approach. There wasn’t the sort of equipment that is available these days. Not even the surveying techniques and the computer CGI that today’s surveyors and designers are lucky enough to be able to use or the many huge machines that are available to do considerably difficult tasks. The sheer dedication in building the New Tōkaidō Line was an important factor – and it is for that reason the Tōkaidō Shinkansen is recognised as the ‘product of the wisdom and effort of Japanese people.’

The opening of the New Tōkaidō Line (often known by its other name the Shinkansen, or as some call it, the Bullet Train) on 1st October 1964 at platform 19, Tokyo station. Source: Britannica

Aerial view of the inauguration ceremony at Tokyo station. The train is just leaving for Osaka. Source: Imgur

The first ever Shinkansen on 1st October 1964 en route to Osaka. Its seen a short way out of Tokyo station passing the Yūrakuchō precinct. Source: Internet Archive

The early fastest trains took four hours initially between Tokyo and Osaka but this was soon shortened to 3 hours and ten minutes. Today’s fastest services (the Nozomi expresses) take two hours thirty minutes.

The classic high speed line Tokyo to Osaka. The dotted line is the new MAGLEV Shinkansen – 1st stage to open 2027.

Operation of the Tōkaidō Shinkansen

The Tōkaidō Shinkansen is the busiest of the high speed lines in the country, with trains departing every few minutes from Tokyo Central, currently totalling around 370 trains daily. The trains initially have to use the classic railway route out of the city centre before attaining the high speed section proper. Although these initial Shinkansen tracks are quite sinuous and delays could occur along here, they don’t. Actually the delays for each Shinkansen train is amazingly less than one minute per year! Those delays average 0.36 seconds for each train each year! Even when there has been bad snowfalls in the country delays have amounted to 1.7 minutes per year for each train service.

Not only does the Shinkansen have practically nil delays, it almost never cancels its trains! This is because its viewed as an inconvenience to passengers and in the eyes of the train operators that just is not acceptable. For that reason they do not allocate additional or back up sets of trains either. What this means is there are no spare sets nor spare crews diagrammed.

Not only that, the platform allocation at Tokyo Central is very tight. There are just six platforms from which a maximum of 14 services depart during the busiest hours of the day. What it means is there’s a very fine juggling act yet despite this the trains are consistently on time. Trains only have twelve minutes to turn round. Five of this is allowed for alighting and boarding. It means cleaning staff have just seven minutes with which to prepare the train for its next trip. To compare, Euston HS2 will have eleven dedicated platforms for perhaps a maximum of 18 trains an hour. That’s a huge luxury! No doubt we shall see huge delays as part of the HS2 package! HS2 wont be a prime on-time railway as those in Japan are.

One thing the Japanese found was people much preferred a 150 mph train service that was consistently on time to one of say 200mph that was not consistently on time. We can imagine which of those types of railway the British are going to have!

The lengthy viaduct near Kyoto seen in the first year of Shinkansen operation. Source: Twitter

Today’s modern Shinkansen is operated by faster trains and controlled by advanced forms of software. There’s operating systems for example for signalling, power supplies, rolling stock maintenance and scheduling, track maintenance and operation management systems to name a few. Its a very comprehensive regime which ensures the railway is completely reliable and that rarely if ever, anything goes wrong.

This reliability is a huge draw in ensuring patronage of the trains is highly proficient and it works extremely well especially in the current, privatised, state of the Japanese railway system. Its not to say that privatisation is a viable prospect, but it does demonstrate that this excellent reliability is a huge draw in terms of patronage.

‘Humanware’ (and also to an extent ‘orgware’) is also a factor in keeping the Shinkansen’s excellent time keeping. Organisation is highly important and exceedingly efficient. Train staff are rigorously trained to ensure timekeeping of services is of optimal consideration. There’s also things like strict observation of local conditions, pointing and calling the signals, signs, observation of the exact time, synchronisation of watches, the actual moment the train stops at its allocated platform positions and that there are no unforeseen conditions that could consist a delay, as well as noting the number of passengers arriving on the platform, and other factors to really ensure nothing is missed and no small detail is overlooked. Pointing and calling is used on a number of railways in East Asia, not just Japan and its said to eliminate errors by a factor of 85 percent.

It is said by 1965 JNR had fifty computers in use to manage its new line. These included the IBM 360/40 and the UNIVAC 490 computers. Much of this was to manage the concept of Centralised Traffic Control, which was the overall system that kept the new railway moving.

Here’s a good video (first couple of minutes) showing the Shinkansen’s staff point & call duties at Yokohama station. NOTE: That video is no longer available. Here’s an alternative video. And here’s another video which involves speaking.

PS they do it on the New York subway too, only its a little more laid back. Here’s an amusing video on the subject.

If there is a natural disaster – earthquakes for example are a constant threat – if such a calamity occurs all the trains are brought to a halt. It isn’t something that is accounted for as a delay to services. There are monitoring systems all along the Shinkansen systems and if earthquakes are detected, the system is halted. Its seen as an inevitability – not only that stopping the trains immediately something happens ensures the complete safety of passengers.

Although the tracks are signalled for bi-directional operation this is something that is very rarely used. Operationally its considered more efficient to manage the lines as a classic double track railway. It might come as a surprise to some but despite all these complexities, the view on the Shinkansen is the more simpler things are in terms of how the railway is operated, the better.

Nice line up of first generation Shinkansen trains at the Fukuoka depot. Source: Misfits Architecture

Clearly when it comes to building railways and maintaining the services there is a completely different philosophy to that which we have in the UK! For a start HS2 will take nearly ten years before its first services are begun. On top of that I cant ever imagine HS2 achieving a practically nil delay factor on any single day of the year! And yes there will be closures for maintenance! That doesn’t happen on the Shinkansen!

What’s more, the total length of HS2 isn’t even half of that of the original Shinkansen! In short we are asking for trouble given the current approaches being employed towards establishing a high speed railway in the UK, besides the environmental issues which I have discussed elsewhere. What it means is we wont have anything like what is achieved in Japan or even China for that matter.

In wrapping up this article mention must be made of the iconic Shinkansen train sets (the classic Bullet Trains.) These were later known as the 0 series. Their last workings on the Tōkaidō Shinkansen occurred in September 1999. The 0 sets were then relegated to some of the other Shinkansen routes and worked these until 2008.

The Super Hikari express on the New Tōkaidō Line. Source: Hippostcard

Longest bridge on the Tōkaidō line is Fujikawa bridge in the shadow of the famous volcano. Source: Japan File

Automatic Train Operation on the New Tōkaidō Line

One of the interesting aspects of the Tōkaidō Shinkansen is the fact it ran on automatic control from the very start.The Automatic Train Operation for the Tōkaidō Shinkasen was initially conceived in 1957 by Hajime Kawabe of the JNR’s Signal Laboratory. One of the problems acknowledged with running a high speed railway was of course the inability to see signals properly and it was decided the New Tōkaidō Line had to be automated to a large extent to avoid driver error. The driver relied on cab control systems in order to know the state of the line ahead. The driver’s role therefore was to starting the train, accelerate it and stopping it at stations.

Underlying this was the ATC system which was designed to reduce driver error and eliminate potential collisions. It could control trains speeds from 210kmh, 160, 110, 70, 30, down to a full stop. (Later developments saw this upgraded for 300kph speeds.) The train driver would see line speed changes or signal restrictions indicated in his cab, but wouldn’t need to do anything for at 1.8 seconds a bell ran to alert the driver to the fact a change was underway, and then a further 1.5 seconds later the train would begin to brake (or draw to a full stop.)Once the restriction had been cleared it would be the driver who accelerated the train and not the ATC.

In cab signalling has been used since the 1920s, and automatic train speed control since the fifties (enabled by the use of lineside devices), however the Shinkansen was the first to use a closed circuit system. The only downside is the original system wasn’t really able to help increase train frequencies beyond a certain limit and newer forms of ATC have had to be developed, much like elsewhere, in order to gain a huge increase in the number of trains that can be run.


Cover of the Japanese National Railways’ New Tōkaidō Line brochure.

Due to railway reorganisation (and privatisation of the different systems) the Tōkaidō Shinkansen is now managed by the Central Japan Railway. The following images are sourced from from that company.

The complete track diagram for the Tōkaidō Shinkasen.

COMTRAC – (Computer Aided Traffic Control) – is the comprehensive system for keeping the railway on the move.

COMTRAC was first used in 1964. This is the new Shinkansen control centre in Tokyo opened in 1972 which boosted the capabilities of COMTRAC. Source: Twitter

The Shinkansen’s TERRA-S earthquake protection systems. Some other interesting information here.

The derailment prevention system on the Tōkaidō Shinkansen. This is designed to prevent train wheels leaving the track when an earthquake is underway and oscillating the land about the railway. Source: Wikipedia.

Next – Part one of the full series.

Other posts in the series:

The Tokaido Shinkansen (introduction)

The Tokyo to Osaka Line: A history #1

The Tokyo to Osaka Line: A history #2

The Tokyo to Osaka Line: A history #3

The Tokyo to Osaka Line: A history #4

The Tokyo to Osaka Line: A history #5

The last three (never published) are focused on specific aspects of the Tōkaidō Shinkansen:

The Tokyo to Osaka Line #6: Tunnels/Kozens/Hankyu

The Tokyo to Osaka Line #7: Freight/Depots/Viaducts

The Tokyo to Osaka Line #8: Dr. Yellow/Train Control

The Tokyo to Osaka Line: A history #1