Monday, July 7, 2008

Tokaido Shinkansen

The old Tokaido road (東海道) linked the imperial town of Kyoto (京都) to Edo(江戸), the former Tokyo(東京) following the Pacific Coast of Japan. It is the most peopled in the country as the weather is warmer than on the side of the Sea of Japan. Today, the Tokaido axis links the three greatest metropolises in Japan: Kanto(関東), Nagoya area (名古屋) and Kansai(関西). With Japan development in the 50s, the need of a large capacity and modern transportation system appeared. Japan invented at that time high-speed train. The line is still in service today, with an unparalleled reputation for speed, punctuality, frequency, security and comfort. The Tokaido Shinkansen is without doubt the best high speed train service in the world.
Back in 1940, Japan felt the need to build new rail tracks on the Tokaido road. Japan uses a narrower gauge (1067mm) that did not allow as much speed as the European trains of the time. In the fifties, the Kodama Express linked Tokyo to Osaka (around 550km) in 6h50 (average speed of 80km/h), wheras in the same period, the French “Mistral” service ran the 863km between Paris and Marseille in 7h10 (average of 120 km/h). The project was however canceled due to the war.
In the fifties, economic development meant the old Tokaido trunk line was close to saturation, as it was also ensuring freight transportation on an axis that did not have a motorway in service. The National Train company first thought was to double the tracks on the old Tokaido line, but it was not easy as the tracks crossed many urban areas, and it would have been necessary to destroy the buildings close the the railroad. So the alternative project of 1940 was started again: the building of standard gauge (1435 mm) tracks dedicated to high speed train. They were naturally called Shinkansen (新幹線) “New trunk lines”. The huge works was completed between 1959 and 1964. Many bridges and tunnels had to be built. Elevated tracks, bridges and tunnels account for around 80% of the track length. Some tunnels, such as Nihonzaka’s (日本坂) in Shizuoka (静岡), were directly reused from the interrupted works of 1940. The trains required an important amount of research, as electric engines of the time generated too much vibration. Technologies from the Japanese Naval Air force were introduced to solve the vibration issue by Tadashi Matsudaira and other aerospace engineers who joined the railways after the war. Thanks to the efficient cooperation of the JNR president Shinji Sogo, and his chief engineering officer Hideo Shima, everything was completed on time for the inauguration en 1964. Travel time between Tokyo and Osaka was reduced to 4 hours in 1964, then 3h10 in 1965. It is now down to only 2h30.
In the eighties, Japan privatized the heavily indebted National Railways. The network was separated in six companies, and the lines was attributed to “JR Central”, also called “JR Tokai” (東海), the company also managing standard lines in the Nagoya and Shizuoka region. Proceeds from the selling of the very profitable Tokaido Shinkansen allowed the debt to be paid back. Even today, part of the profit of the line is used to finance track improvement work in rural parts of Japan. Some people estimate that it represents an additional cost of 30% for the passenger. Since privatization, “JR Central” managed the line very efficiently. There was no casualty or injuries in the 44 years the line was in service. Average delay of trains was less than 6 seconds in 2003, including delays caused by earthquake, typhoons and heavy snowfalls.
There are plans to construct a new line based on ‘maglev’ technology between Tokyo and Nagoya following the mountain route “Chuo” (中央線). The last plans from the “JR Central” company plan an entry into service in 2025, and a test line has already been built in Yamanashi prefecture (山梨).
3 different types of train run on the line: Kodama (こだま) is the local service. There is a station every 20 or 30 km to serve medium-sized towns on the way. It usually runs between Tokyo and Nagoya, and between Nagoya and Osaka. Hikari (ひかり) stops in Hamamatsu (浜松), Shizuoka or Atami (熱海) in addition to the main stations. Nozomi (のぞみ) only stops in main station: Shinagawa (品川), Shin-Yokohama (新横浜), Nagoya, Kyoto and Shin-Osaka (新大阪). During peak hours, there are up to 11 departures every hour.
High-speed train is an high-tech industry with heavy investments. However, the passenger experience is mainly the result of the cabin layout. Shinkansen coaches have rows of 5 seats with a 2 and 3 layout. Seats are always turned so that passengers always face ahead when the train is moving. It is also possible to create a friendlier layout by turning back one row of seats so that groups of 4 or 6 people travel facing each other. Leg space is very large, so that even tall people can seat in comfortably in regular coaches. In comparison, French TGV or airplane economy class is a nightmare. Cabin decoration is simple, with white and beige the dominant colors, and shapes reminding of aircraft cabins. A display on top of the door gives information about the trip, news, and weather forecast. In the last generation trains (N700), passengers have plugs for their laptop and internet wi-fi access. The restaurant car service was discontinued in 2003, but there are trolleys selling coffee, drinks and sandwiches. There are coaches without reservations with free placement so that it is always possible to take a train at the last minute. It is easy to arrive by subway in Tokyo station without tickets, and to board a train departing 5 or 10 minutes later.
The Fare for the 450 kilometers between Shin-Yokohama and Kyoto (2 hours) is Y12890 (80 Euros) for a regular seat on Nozomi service with reservation. On a Hikari service, the same seat would cost Y12590 (78 Euros). A non-reserved seat valid for Hikari and Kodama is Y12080 (75.5 Euros). Children up to 11 years old pay half fare, but there are not that many other discounts. A completely flexible ticket between Paris and Lyon on the TGV is slightly more expensive, at 81.5 Euros, but the quality of service is less impressive (comfort, frequency, punctuality). However, there are more discount fares on the TGV (advanced non-refundable tickets can be bought for 62.90 Euros. However, the Shinkansen fares are also used in Japan to cross-subsidize the rural network, and are more expensive as a result.
Japan Railways has an up-to-date English site.


Adler said...

Actually, a non-refundable, off-peak, advance purchase ticket for the TGV between Paris and Lyon can be bought for as little as 19 euros if you book early enough!!

I am not joking! Try it for yourself: go to and search for tickets for mid-week travel (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday) 3 weeks later. I performed a search for Paris-Lyon round-trip tickets valid 24-25September and got lowest prices of 19 euros each for the journey to Lyon and the journey back to Paris. (Today is 6 September)

Adler said...

Here's a screenshot of the TGV reservation screen with a bargain price of 38 euros for Paris-Lyon round trip (aller et retour):


Uchimizu said...

@Adler, thanks for posting those comments. You are right, there are actually TGV tickets at 19 Euros on sell right now. It is certainly a good bargain for someone able to arrange travel schedule around it. You just have to be aware that this is an exceptional discount which is not always available.

All of my last trips in TGV were full fare, as I could not leave off-peak, and there were no discount available on the trains convenient for me.

Adler said...

Thanks for replying to my comment. I suppose I was lucky when I visited France two weeks ago! (Eurostar London to Paris for 60 euros aller et retour, though that was with student discount).

Vous êtes alors un français qui habite au Japon? Votre blog est assez intéressant! Moi, je suis un étudiant chinois qui habite au Royaume-Uni. Hein, il faut que je pratique le français... j'ai oublié le plupart de ce que j'avais étudié à l'école >_<. いま日本語を勉強します...quand j'étais à Paris, j'ai demandé à un étranger: "Où est l'eki (駅) du Nord?"

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