After 50 years, there’s still something futuristic about the shinkansen, as the completion last week of the Hokuriku shinkansen line linking Tokyo and Kanazawa reminds us. Japan’s are no longer the world’s only bullet trains, or even the fastest – but they are the world’s best, asserts Shukan Post (March 27), which proceeds to ask an unsettling question: If Japan’s really are the best – and they do seem to be, in terms of safety, punctuality and cutting-edge technology – why are French and Chinese bullet trains so heavily favored on the growing international market?
Tokyo and Kanazawa, roughly 300 km apart, are now within 2 hours and 28 minutes of each other, down from nearly four hours by ordinary train. The Hokuriku shinkansen’s top speed, 260 kmh, is not Japan’s fastest, an honor claimed by the Tohoku shinkansen (320 kmh), but very fast all the same, and anyway, is speed everything? Shukan Post’s point is that it is not. French and Chinese trains can outrun Japan’s on the straightaway, the magazine says, but only Japan has met the challenge of curves.
There was no choice. Unlike France and China, Japan has no vast plains. It is a curvaceous country. The technological imperatives curves present is part of what spurred Japanese innovation to such heights. Another spur, of course, is earthquakes. Shinkansens are chock full of sensors. They weigh in if, for example, one train approaches too close to another, or if premonitory tremors portend a quake. The automatic braking system is state of the art – it can stop a train moving at top speed within a mere 300 meters.
The first shinkansen, linking Tokyo and Osaka, had its maiden run on Oct 1, 1964, nine days before the opening of the Tokyo Olympics. In the 50 years since, not a single passenger has been killed or injured in a shinkansen accident – not even, remarkably, during the monstrously destructive March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Shukan Post contrasts this stellar record with France’s, China’s and Spain’s. In France, it says, accidents involving the bullet-like TGV train occur frequently; 40 died in a China bullet train accident in 2011; a derailment in Spain in 2013 killed 79.
Then there’s punctuality. Here again, Japan’s shinkansen knows no peer. Late arrivals, averaged out over the course of a year, are measured in seconds. “By French standards,” the magazine observes archly, “Japanese shinkansens are 100% on time.” Not that the TGV does badly – but their late arrivals must be measured in minutes.
Why, then, do France and China export so much more high-speed rail technology than Japan does? The answer is surprising: Japan’s technology is too good for the world market.
Too good? Is high quality a drawback? It is when it is high beyond what customers think they need, and costly beyond what they want to pay. Developing countries seeking high-speed rail transport are severely budget-conscious, and even developed countries, if they are less earthquake-prone and mountainous than Japan, will perhaps settle for technology that doesn’t meet the most rigid standards. Thus, France’s exports to Spain, South Korea and Morocco, and China’s to Turkey, Romania and Hungary. The world marvels at Japanese technology but shops elsewhere.
“Japan,” Shukan Post concludes, “needs to raise its marketing skills to the level of its technological skills.© Japan Today