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Railwatch 075 - April 1998

Letter from Japan

by Chris Packham

World attention was focused on Japan in February when the winter Olympics were staged at Nagano. Railways played a part in the success of the Games as the country’s newest Shinkansen route opened in October allowing sports fans to travel on high-speed trains from Tokyo to Nagano at 170mph.

Although regarded by some as wasteful and unnecessary just to serve a sporting project, it is intended to form part of a planned Hokuriku Shinkansen, continuing via the Japan Sea coast to Osaka.

Construction of this, and two other routes, will start soon with completion expected early next decade.

Other recent Shinkansen developments include 1600-seat double-deck trains on routes north from Tokyo and new 187mph trains on the Tokyo-Fukuoka line which cover the 735 miles in four hours, fifty minutes.

Japan’s position as a leader in high-speed rail technology is reinforced by its experimental Maglev train which has reached 344mph on trial. The test track is the first segment of a planned Tokyo-Osaka Maglev route but the huge financial and environmental costs make this a very long-term prospect at best. Although Shinkansen travel is expensive (a one way ticket for the 345 miles from Tokyo to Osaka costs £70), it is competitive with air travel and road (because of high motorway tolls).

Bad weather sometimes delays the Shinkansen but technical failure is very rare. The system is also extremely safe. No-one has been killed riding the Shinkansen in over 30 years of operation.

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