Here
and
Now

kuchikomi

Japan's shinkansen best in world at safety, punctuality, tech, but not marketing

44 Comments

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

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

44 Comments
Login to comment

Wow, lots of balderdash in this article.

Most countries have the common sense not build a nationwide network so extensively on dedicated elevated track, which is really, really expensive and unwieldy. Nor do they want to toll ALL of the nation's highways to offset some of the massive shinkansen costs, and otherwise financially punish non-users.

Vietnam's parliament vetoed a Japanese shinkansen proposal, simply saying it is "too expensive." Wise move.

Safety is a moot point when comparing with the TGV. No risk management specialist in the world would take such a comparison into account, given the tiny, tiny probabilities. Remember, TGV has also never had a fatal accident.

Anyway, the TGV runs faster and cheaper than the Shink with less technology. It has also had long experience with integrating with other countries' systems. It is an example of "smart technology," as opposed to over-engineering.

-2 ( +20 / -22 )

You have very clearly explained the situation in a nutshell @JeffLee. Well done.

I would add that 'marketing' is actually one of the strengths of the shinkansen — so much so that 'shinkansen' has become a widely accepted English word, as has 'bullet train' to refer almost exclusively to Japan's high-speed rail. In comparison, not many know the French or Chinese words for 'high-speed rail.'

Also, when you mention Japan to people from other countries, often one of the first things they mention is Japan's shinkansen. It is the iconic achievement of bubble-era Japan, which probably explains a lot about the high cost, over engineering and burdensome financing schemes that go with it.

Anyway, I personally would rather ride the Shinkansen than the French or Chinese trains, but given the complexity and cost factors I can see why governments of other nations would choose an alternative.

6 ( +14 / -8 )

So, once again, the point is to try to tout how much better Japan is at something. Do they ever give this a rest? Can't even watch a TV show without some 'talent' spouting off at the mouth about how everything is so much better here. As I write this, my one and a half hour flight to Hokkaido is about an hour late. I would have taken the shinkansen yesterday evening but it was a bit pricey and the last one was leaving at around NOON, which is way too early for someone who finishes work in the evening. Not very convenient, it seems. They didn't address that angle in the article but I'm sure they could find a way to explain it away and show me how it is more convenient than anything else.

-5 ( +15 / -20 )

Japan's shinkansen best in world at safety, punctuality, tech, but not marketing

-With inflation this Japan export is now cheaper. Instead of the Shink I would like the see Japan's energy as the best in the world. Obviously Tepco falls way short of that goal right now.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Remember, TGV has also never had a fatal accident.

You might want to qualify that statement to read "while running at high speed". A simple search of the Internet will give you a list of TGV accidents (mainly rail crossing, etc.,) that have resulted in fatalities, including at least one in which a crew member died.

15 ( +17 / -2 )

From my understanding, the high price tag of Japanese Shinks derive from the incorporation of earthquake measures and state of the art noise-abatement technology that suit the country's seismic activity prone and densely populated environment.

How many developed countries with geographical and population characteristics similar to Japan are there?

9 ( +13 / -4 )

Interestingly, here in the USA it appears that Siemens--who builds the 300+ km/h Velaro high-speed trainsets running on the Deutsche Bahn and soon will be running to London via the Channel Tunnel--could get the contracts to build trainsets for high-speed rail lines now in the initial planning stages for several parts of the USA.

The reason is simple: Siemens Mobility has a large manufacturing facility in Sacramento, California USA already building passenger rail equipment (light rail systems and the new ACS 64 passenger train locomotive for Amtrak); Siemens has said that if they get the contract to build a variant of the Velaro trainset for the California high-speed rail system, the final assembly work will be done at its Sacramento facility. That's something that Kawaski and Nippon Sharyo--both of which have final assembly facilities for rail equipment here in the USA--can't do just yet, the last I heard.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Over engineering? In the world's most seismically active nation, sounds like a SOUND approach. Dedicated, elevated track? Excellent idea. Reduces risk, prevents delays to other transport modes and ensures things run to the second. To. The. SECOND. Plus, when you have one the world's most mountainous countries, you need all the ground you can get.

Does JeffLee know anything about the country he is so eager to call foul off? We think: NO!

It's a fantastic enviable achievement for a country that only 19 years after exiting total destruction ran the fastest and safest rail network in the Solar System.

Sour grapes? That way to the spitting booth >

12 ( +18 / -6 )

Raymond Chuang

As long as they are built in the US, the "Buy America ACT" is met so Siemens doesn't get any preferential treatment. Velaro also doesn't have any seismic detection modes so it will become a large obstacle to overcome requiring to develop a new system from scratch.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I like trains. Do you?

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

I'm a blue collar citizen here in Japan, so it's special when I take the Shinkansen and I love it. One time, I had to get back home that night from Tokyo and the only spot available was the legendary "Green Car".

It was as imagined. Like an airplane's first class to simple little me. Heaven.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

Too good?

Too good and very safe as I would like to add. When I was young, I have watched actor Kentakakura movie Bullet Train and dreamed about riding it. In the real life, that magic train is better than what I expected.

Is high quality a drawback?

Depending on the necessities of purchasing nation. Taiwan High Speed Rail Corporation adopted THSR 700T type is based on the 700 Series Shinkansen train used by JR Central and JR West in Japan. Taiwan likes Japan which is prone to natural disasters. They do not mind about paying extra cash if the trains are safe and sound like Japanese standard.

If the nation like Australia want to purchase the bullet trains, they have to concern more about Bush fire proof train instead of Japanese and Taiwanese style natural disasters prone bullet trains.

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.

Commercially France and China are more successful for bullet trains export. However they have no moral high ground and proud safety record like Japan. Both of their trains have already killed people. Japanese bullet trains have no blood like them. It is pure and innocent as Snow White.

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.

Congratulation for the incredible safety and efficient record. As the fan and admirer of Japanese technology, I would like to pay my salute to the designers and manufacturers and seven minutes cleaning staff of Shinkansen trains. On the train, I feel like I am floating somewhere between earth and heaven.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

@SamuraiBlue, I believe that a variant of the Velaro trainset (CRH380BL and CRH380CL) now being built in China for the China Rail High-speed (CRH) system does have seismic senors, due to the fact a number of routes being run by CRH are in earthquake-prone areas.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Another wonderful thing about the shinkansen and other high speed rail is that unlike with the airplane infrastructure that makes trains like this one less viable in the USA, you can just buy a ticket and get on. No passports or other papers, no security checks, no hassle. You can't hijack a train that can only run on one line!

3 ( +3 / -0 )

@Thon

You've never heard of Glimmen?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The automatic braking system is state of the art – it can stop a train moving at top speed within a mere 300 meters.

That would be quite a braking rate (more than 1 G by my calculation).

Googling shinkansen stopping distance suggests a more realistic 4000 meters.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

"A simple search of the Internet will give you a list of TGV accidents (mainly rail crossing, etc.,) that have resulted in fatalities,"

Same with the Shinkansen, which has also killed people at crossings, such as this one just over a year ago;

http://www.japantoday.com/category/national/view/woman-killed-after-her-car-is-hit-by-bullet-train-in-yamagata

Meanwhile, the TGV has not recorded a single fatality due to accident while running at high speed. More importantly, any potential client country with a brain wouldn't need to make to any risk analysis comparison on safety, since the probabilities are so low.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Same with the Shinkansen, which has also killed people at crossings, such as this one just over a year ago;

The actual claim is that there has not been a single passenger fatality on the Shinkansen. I know this from reading a recent proposal to promote the Shinkansen for a high-speed-rail link between Malaysia and Singapore. The big consideration on that route was subsidence from peaty soil, rather than seismic issues. Japan has plenty of experience with building on peaty soil.

the final assembly work will be done at its Sacramento facility. That's something that Kawaski and Nippon Sharyo--both of which have final assembly facilities for rail equipment here in the USA--can't do just yet, the last I heard.

The proposal addressed this. One consideration is that some of the track construction technology was under patent and no longer is.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Japan chooses to run its train systems differently to the rest of the world, and they therefore don't align to international standards. One big reason why they don't win business abroad. Japan also shuts out foreign train manufacturers and suppliers from its domestic markets by claiming safety issues and not aligning with their standards...... This is done on purpose, because they know that if they aligned with international standards they would be unable to compete with their horribly high cost base.

-1 ( +5 / -6 )

Japan chooses to run its train systems differently to the rest of the world, and they therefore don't align to international standards.

What standards are you referring to?

There's no international standard to align to, just a disparate group of countries that adopt their own system according to their own purposes - which may or may not match that of their neighbours. When you say Japan "chooses" to run its rail systems "differently", all countries choose to run their rail systems as they wish. For most of them, this started back in the 19th century, and some of the differences seen today are a legacy of that.

In addition, no single country dominates the field, though if you insisted on one, based on a reasonable set of measures (network coverage, safety, technology, number of passengers carried, efficiency), it would be Japan.

3 ( +6 / -3 )

The main problem with Japanese media is tgeir lack of actual research and objectivity, they praise themselves constantly without lookingvinto the real reasons they are losing in the technology markets and that is, they are inflexible. Cina, France, Italy and Germany cater to the local needs and customize quickly and efficiently. Japan builds standardized trains etc dfor its market and pushes that onto the market. No real flexibility and lack of understanding about what the international clients needs are is the real cause of failure. Also lack of modesty doesnt help matters.

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

"There's no international standard to align to, just a disparate group of countries that adopt their own system according to their own purposes..."

Nope. The Europeans have been spearheading global harmonization with good success. That means anyone, say Canadian Bombardier, can participate in projects, in say Brazil, without a lot of technical aggravation, plus transparent specs that lead to competitive bidding that leads to more reasonable costs for the governments concerned.

Now, this is exactly what JR and other Japanese players DON'T want. They want domination thru their own proprietary specs, which JR draws up behind closed doors and is reluctant to share with gaijin.

JR's proposal for the US, for example, is to create a unique Japanese system, through and through, from rail construction to the way that ticket clerks are trained. That would mean that the US customers would have to phone Tokyo for every single replacement nut and bolt.

Hitachi has had some success with contracts in UK, but it had to depart from the JR umbrella to do this.

This is really why Japanese train makers have failed overseas, regardless of the usual smug Japanese superiority mindset expressed in the article above.

-3 ( +3 / -6 )

I think that the Japanese Shinkansen is a great mode of transportation. In fact I love Japan's transportation infrastructure as it is so easy to get around. Unfortunately the reason that Japan has such a great mass transit system is because of WWII when everything was destroyed and the Japanese had to start over from scratch. When you have a clean slate to write on, the possibilities are endless and Japan being an organized country with everyone pretty much on the same page can get things done in record time and done well. The Shinkansen trains are clean and punctual with a great safety record. What I also like is that the train terminals are located right where they should be in the center of any major city with local subways, buses and taxi services allowing you to move about with ease.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Nope. The Europeans have been spearheading global harmonization with good success.

They've been spearheading European harmonization, which was a far more pressing need for them, given the number of countries and systems in Europe. So any push for global harmonization will inevitably be based heavily if not exclusively on that. Which is convenient for Europeans.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

JeffLee

There are no barriers in which Japan would be bared out of the market outside of Europe because there are no regulation or international standard stopping Japan from entering.

The Shinkansen system is already a contender in India, Thailand, California, Texas, Malyasia and Vietnam if Indonesia. The Maglev system is being pitched to the NEC in US as well. European manufacturers are competing in all and Japan may win some and lose some but there is no disadvantage for the Shinkansen to be not chosen.

5 ( +5 / -1 )

The Shinkansen system is already a contender in India, Thailand, California, Texas, Malyasia and Vietnam if Indonesia.

Being a contender means nothing if you don't get the contract. There are no second place prizes.

there is no disadvantage for the Shinkansen to be not chosen.

Other than cost.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

"Which is convenient for Europeans."

Bombardier, the world's biggest rail maker outside China, is one of the major players behind the drive for harmonized technical standards, which do originate from Europe. Bombardier is Canadian. and it has contracts throughout the world. Harmonization is good for everyone....well, everyone who believes in transparency, fairness and competition.

"The Shinkansen system is already a contender in India, Thailand, California, Texas, Malyasia and Vietnam if Indonesia"

Several of the proposals would be funded JICA, thru Japanese aid, under the condition that suppliers are restricted to Japanese companies. If the Japanese projects get the contracts, it's not because they're better or more competitive...it's because we taxpayers in Japan would pay for them.

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

Bombardier is Canadian. and it has contracts throughout the world. Harmonization is good for everyone....well, everyone who believes in transparency, fairness and competition.

So I take it that Canada (Bombardier being Canadian) and the United States have enthusiastically embraced harmonization - to a set of standards that diverge from their own existing rail systems but mesh nicely with some in Europe?

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Strangerland

All of the nations I mentioned had decided which one so anyone including the Shinkansen has a chance.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

According to the what I've read, there is one place where Shinkansen technology could come to the USA: the Texas Central Railway proposal for a high-speed line between Dallas and Houston, TX.

Essentially a full "turnkey" solution based on the N700-I trainset (essentially an international variant of the N700A trainset), TCR essentially will be fully replicating what we see on the Tokaido Shinkansen line, but would actually be cheaper to build in than Japan since there is no need to build a lot of tunnels or extensive earthquake mitigation given the geographical topography between Dallas and Houston. With its top speed of 330 km/h (205 mph), it would make it possible to go from downtown Dallas to downtown Houston in under 90 minutes, a lot faster than the current four-plus hours (if you're lucky!) on Interstate 45 and more convenient than flying (especially when you have to deal with the complications of TSA security checkpoints).

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Anyway, the TGV runs faster and cheaper than the Shink with less technology.

Which is a moot point.

4 ( +3 / -0 )

If I remember correctly the N700i/A utilizes less W/seat/Km then the TGV so the Shinkansen is cheaper to run if you compare it apple to apple. TGV has less seats per train even if they have the same number of cars since the TGV utilizes a special boogie making each car shorter in length. Europe also utilizes a narrower loading gauge so the seats are two by two compared to Shinkansen's three by two layout.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

>Too Good ?

The old Shinkansen kept its train running at a "slow speed" (considering the train is built with high cutting-edge and expensive technology, it could/should run very much faster) to achieve 0% casualty or accident.

I have read some teasing on the net: " why are they not safe if they run so slow ?"

and 260 km/h = high speed, now? I suppose many would prefer faster, as well safer and cheaper.

"Good vine need no bush", says it all; if it is not saleable, what? This is also a moot point, no offence.

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

sanyuyulai

Maximum speed possible of a train set is only part of the equation, the lay of the track also plays are role in how fast a train can run. Tokaido has a radius of only 2.5Km at the most narrowest curves. Kyushu shinkansen requires to negotiate 30‰ hill for 30Km. A place like France where land is relatively flat doesn't have to negotiate these kind of obstacles so they can run at potential full speed of the train set.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Now, this is exactly what JR and other Japanese players DON'T want. They want domination thru their own proprietary specs, which JR draws up behind closed doors and is reluctant to share with gaijin.

Ridiculous. Are you claiming some racist practices here?

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

Japan's Shinkansen is without doubt the best in the world all-round: safety, punctuality, speed, service, price. In the mass-transportation business, there is no such thing as too high a quality--the world will learn, unfortunately, through more human casualties.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

Kind of true. Many Japanese products or services suffer from poor promotion abroad. and many are just too expensive or structured in a way tnat is uniquely Japanese but doesn't translate well in other countries and cultures.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I have a question.... Why is that when Europe does it, it's called "harmonization" but if anyone else does it (even the U.S.) it is called "imposition" or "that it is forced" ???

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Japan doesn't like to boast. They hope others see what it has to offer and for them to realize it's the best. This is the part of being humble that hurts Japan.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

Japan is the best! Simply the best at everything! Numba one in the world!

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

The shinkansen is great!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

It is tiresome to listen how great the shinkansen is and how only the Japanese humbleness and shyness and those pesky foreigners prevent it from being more widespread worldwide. If there is in which Japanese world experts are - it is packaging and presenting products of questionable quality to look "kawaii".

There is a reason the people rip off the German and French technologies, as the Japanese did in their time, and then the Japanese ones. Do not get me wrong - they all have great technologies, something like picking up between some A-,A and A+.

What French have achieved in engineering department is beyond marvel. There is a reason for the smaller carriages there and bigger here and it is not engineering related. And there is a reason why European-based companies predominantly win contracts.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I used to live in Kansai and I believe the Shinkansen line collapsed in several places in Amagasaki in the Great Hanshin Earthquake. I saw a couple of them myself, and they weren't in areas of big earthquake damage to surrounding houses. Like the Meishin Highway, the line may have only been reinforced for lateral movement, not the perpendicular one the quake produced. Anyway, the earthquake happened at 5.46am, so there were very few trains running. Had the earthquake happened a couple of hours later, hundreds if not thousands of people may have died. I can't hear of the Shinkansen's safety record without remembering it.

When it comes to trains, Japan's best ones are all the boring commuter lines in the big cities. The Seibu, the Odakyu, the Meitetsu, the Hankyu, etc. etc. and of course all of the commuter JR lines. They carry a huge volume of people at low cost, little environmental damage, and very impressive punctuality. The only really impressive Shinkansen is the Tokaido one, because it's massively high volume and replaces what would be thousands of internal flights. The "regional" shinkansens to Niigata and Nagano/Kanazawa steal high paying (tokkyu ryokin) passengers from existing (and struggling) rural lines ("zairaisen"). Such lines keep running because some local people need them and they can't afford high Shinkansen fares for everyday usage. The operation of zairaisen gets dumped on the dai-san sector, a euphemism for the local taxpayer. It's a huge problem because they run at big losses once they lose all the tourist traffic to JR's Shinkansen. The Hokkaido Shinkansen doesn't make much sense either, because people should fly that distance in half the time (and with half the cost if its an LCC). There isn't the volume to justify a dedicated and massively expensive train line.

I'd expect the tgv etc. to be different, but the Shinkansen brutalizes its way through the countryside on 1000km long concrete bridges. Its much easier to avoid accidents when you have no level crossings and no curves or uphills or downhills. Mountains just mean tunnels and valleys mean huge bridges once you're through the mountain, it doesn't matter what it does to the scenery. The new super-manic version of the Shinkansen is the "linear" one whose line is going to be nearly 90% through tunnels or on bridges with enclosed track. It'll be like riding the subway if you're on it, and another big concrete and metal bridge in the landscape for everyone who isn't. Anyone who thinks that's a sign of Japan leading the world in a technology everyone would want has simply fallen for the hype.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

@JeffLee how about Chinese Quality - http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-17336130.

Chinese high speed railway technology nothing but based on technology transfers not developed by their own. No comparison to anywhere to Japanese high reliable technologies.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites