Working out the bugs in first shinkansens


"The rails on the line weren't completely connected until just three months before the startup of services, so in some sectors we had to hold down speed to 70 kmh," Kameo Seki, age 81, recalls in Shukan Shincho (Oct 16).

Seki drove the first shinkansen departure, Hikari No. 1, from Tokyo Station on Oct 1, 1964

"But the conductor kept popping into the driver's compartment to ask me, 'At what point will we be surpassing 200 kmh?' Passengers had jammed into the buffet car, where they could watch the speedometer mounted on the wall."

"Since the train wasn't due in Osaka until four hours later, I could get there without hitting 200 kmh, so I held the speed around 160 as far as Kyoto," says Seki.

However, Kazutaro Oishi, 81, the motorman in Hikari No. 2 that departed from Osaka, was reluctant to disappoint his passengers. After departing from Kyoto station and traveling past Lake Biwa the train reached a long straightaway and Oishi turned up the speed to 200 kmh. The length of the train erupted with passengers' shouts of jubilation.

Oishi and Seki exchanged waves as their trains passed near the Tenryu River in Shizuoka.

Passengers today might take the trouble-free operation for granted, but things were touch-and-go for the new shinkansen right up to its first day. On the test runs performed up to Sept 30, the day before service was initiated, malfunctions occurred frequently and it was rare for trains to operate on schedule.

"When trouble with electric transmissions occurred, it took 10 minutes or longer to restore the power, so no matter how fast we ran, we would not arrive on schedule." said Seki. "But as the first commercial run would go down in history, I didn't dare be late."

Masao Saito, 95, a division manager in the former JNR, recalls that in the first year of operations, technical problems on the new line occurred so frequently he lost 8 kilograms and his hair turned white.

On Aug 21, 1965, in light rain, as a Hikari No. 2 bound for Tokyo zipped past Shin-Yokohama at a speed of 187 kmh, a wheel began spinning. A disc had fractured on the one of the brakes of car No. 8, and flung off fragments at high speed, penetrating the floor of the car like bullets. Another fragment hit a house along the route.

"Staff rushed to the site of the accident, where we discovered that centrifugal force from a spinning wheel not contacting the track caused the bolts affixing the disk to snap," Saito relates. "It was a miracle that nobody was hurt."

Although that train was nearly at full capacity, there was a reason why no injuries were incurred.

"Car 8 had been a Green Car (first class carriage), and it so happened that a group of Americans was supposed to board in Kyoto," says Saito. "But they cancelled at the last minute and the car was empty. If they had been on the train, it might have become an international incident. That malfunction led to addition of a device to detect wheel spin, even at high speeds."

From November 1965, the shinkansen finally cranked up the operating speed to 210 kmh, reducing the travel between Tokyo and Osaka from 4 hours to 3 hours, 10 minutes. This unfortunately led to another, quite embarrassing technical glitch.

"The unmistakable smell of ordure emanated from the stationmaster's office and wafted through room," Saito recalls. "A middle-aged man stood there glaring at me."

Similar complaints began arriving from other stations on the line. In all cases, the trouble had occurred just before entering or exiting a long tunnel.

It seemed that when the shinkansen entered a tunnel at high speed, while its cars were pressurized to keep passengers' ears from feeling discomfort, the toilet cubicles were not. And the change in pressure -- equivalent to a three-meter high column of water -- caused the toilets to gush raw sewage.

Satoshi Kubo, age 81, who inspected cars for the Japanese National Railways, recalled that fixing the toilets on all cars took two years to complete.

Seki believes to this day he was selected to drive the first train out of Tokyo out of superstition, because of his first name "Kameo," which means "turtle man." "Turtle" may seem incongruous considering the high speed of the famous train, but it also symbolizes longevity, which the rail line has certainly achieved.

"At the time operations started, most people still harbored doubts as to whether it would work," says Seki. "To have seen the shinkansen come this far gives me an inexpressible feeling."

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Great story and I had a great laugh about the tunnel induced toilet 'eruptions'. Glad that was taken care of...

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I wonder did JNR fix the toilet problem by putting in the same type of toilet as those used on commercial airliners.

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"Seki drove the first shinkansen departure, Hikari No. 1, from Tokyo Station on Oct 1, 1964"

And what has the world accomplished since? How few truly democratic advancements for a society have we accomplished. Japan set the bar, TGV and others perfect, but how many other grand visions have been accomplished? There is nothing like a silky train except the next great innovation. How amazing this occasion, fifty years! Amazing!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

A simply amazing and incredible feat of engineering even to this day.

50 years and counting.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Interwsting to hear anecdotes and comments from people with first-hand experience. Thanks for sharing!

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And what has the world accomplished since?

The microprocessor was invented, resulting in more-capable electronic devices and revolutionizing business, philanthropy, and education worldwide. Compared to "a fast train", I'd say the invention of the microprocessor is the hands-down winner in regards to a "truly democratic advancement for society".

2 ( +2 / -0 )

New stuff have growing pains.

Just look at the Dreamliner.

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Japan is really a model to use as far as what can be achieved in terms of mass transit. Only problem that the USA would face in order to emulate the transit sucess that Japan has achieved Is It would need to be destroyed in a world war and rebuilt by a competant government which will never happen. 500 years from now the USA won't even occupy a paragraph in history books.

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