What is a Japanese Bullet Train?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 10 October 2019
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The Japanese bullet train, or Shinkansen, as it is commonly known, is a marvel of modern public transportation. This high-speed rail system is estimated to carry between 150 and 200 million passengers per year, and is becoming a standard of travel throughout much of Japan. Originally proposed in the early 1940s, the first bullet trains were not opened until the mid-1960s, and have undergone many improvements and upgrades since their implementation.

Shinkansen is a high-speed train with regular speeds reaching nearly 200 miles per hour (mph), or 300 kilometers per hour (kph). Some tests have shown that the trains are capable of traveling at nearly double that rate, but for safety reasons the bullet train remains at a slower pace. Even at the slower rate, the Japanese bullet train reduces travel time considerably for commuting passengers, and has been a model of efficiency and safety since its opening.

The Japanese bullet train originally ran between the cities of Osaka and Tokyo, following the path of an ancient road that connected cities since the days of the samurai. Today, the bullet train transit system covers most of the southern island of Japan, making it useful for a variety of purposes. While daily commuters use the central lines to move from far distant suburbs into the heart of large cities, tourists and sightseers can take Shinkansen to visit outlying destinations with ease and at great speed.


Some consider high-speed train lines such as the Japanese bullet train to be a welcome alternative to increasingly crowded and expensive air travel, especially over relatively short distances. Some Shinkansen trains can carry twice as many passengers as a commercial airliner, and the most popular trains may arrive at depots several times per hour, allowing greater flexibility of schedule for passengers. In addition, the Japanese bullet train has an exceptional safety record, boasting only one derailment in more than 40 years of operation. As of 2009, no passenger fatalities due to crashes or derailments have occurred.

Contrary to some reports, the Japanese bullet train does not operate primarily on magnetic levitation to travel, relying instead on streamlined design and advanced rail techniques to achieve its awesome speeds. Magnetic levitation, a relatively new technology, allows extreme high speed due to magnetic pull and remains in the testing phase in Japan as well as many other countries. However magnetic levitation seems to be the future of Shinkansen, with Japanese Rail executives planning to implement Maglev trains on Shinkansen lines by 2025.


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Post 5

@Bakersdozen - Your trip sounds great. Don't worry about the smoking issue. All Shinkansen trains have plenty of non smoking cars. (Some are entirely non smoking now too.)

It may be worth reserving a seat if you can, just to be sure you get what you want.

Post 4

I plan to travel in Asia sometime next year, and love the sound of the Shinkansen.

Does anyone know of they are any non smoking cars though? I have a terrible allergy to cigarette fumes and my reading on this topic suggests smoking is a popular pastime in Japan.

I'm happy to buy the toursit pass, even though it's more expensive then using long distance buses. I just don't want to waste my money if I can't use the train.

Post 3

@summing - I totally agree. When I rode the Shinkansen for the first time I couldn't even tell we were moving. It's amazing.

I was lucky enough to be accepted on a teaching program in Japan a couple of years ago. I made the most of the time there by visiting all the major cities I could. Of course not all are accessible by bullet train but you can get close to most places this way.

When my friend visited he bought a special pass, which meant the train was free! (Pity I wasn't eligible for that myself, it's only for tourists.)

Post 2

I have been to Japan and ridden their bullet rail lines extensively and let me tell you, they are amazing. You would not believe how fast those trains go but on top of that you wouldn't believe how smooth and peaceful the ride is. You really fell like you are just gliding through the air. It is really a great system and it has been a huge benefit for the Japanese people. The ease of mobility in that country puts us here in America to shame.

Post 1

There has been a lot of talk lately about building high speed rail in America. I don't know if these would qualify as bullet trains but they are obviously a similar kind of transport.

Here is St. Louis where I live they have talked about building a line between St. Louis and Chicago. It would take something like 5 hours to make the trip which is about the same as a car depending on the traffic. I for one would love to see this kind of transportation option. If I could go to Chicago in the same amount of time it takes me now but not have to pay for gas and be able to nap along the way it would be worth the ticket price for sure. Lets hope that we can follow the example of the Japanese and get on board for high speed rail.

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