Many think riding a Japanese bullet train is akin to a roller coaster with a roof and windshield. So sorry. Your green tea barely ripples when the train turns a corner. The only sound is the waitress pushing a trolley of rice crackers. An Indian train, moving at a tenth the speed could inspire a haiku about clattering wheels, wind in the hair. A Japanese Shinkansen might inspire techno-mood music. In my previous high-speed train encounters — three different bullet trains, a French TGV and its Korean variant — I had missed the lack of any gut-tightening experience. Last week, I got a fourth chance on a bullet. This was different: courtesy Japan Railway and the US-Japan-India Trilateral Dialogue, I was going to ride shotgun with the driver.
Tokyo was wet, gray and economically depressed. The rail officials escorting our party efficiently showed up with neat white umbrellas for all. Our train was a N300 Shinkansen, a tried and tested workhorse. And we were going to Shizuoka and back, about halfway to Osaka, a tried and tested line. Of the seven billion people who’ve ridden bullets, about five billion have done so on the Tokyo-Osaka line.
I was among the first to be marched to the front. Walking the entire length of the train was a lesson in Shinkansen sociology, the rear filled with suited executives and the front bogies left to chopstick-wielding families eating from takeaway boxes.
The driver’s cabin was tiny. There was just enough space for him, an array of LCD screens and an assistant. The passengers sat behind a door, only two metres away. His peaked hat and shiny buttons echoed pictures of imperial Japanese naval officers. Every now and then he would point to a screen — arm straight, index finger rigid and call out. Was he giving instructions to the train? No, he was reading out the speed and stop numbers, a mnemonic habit to ‘make less mistakes’.
Not making mistakes is a Japanese obsession. Supposedly only one Shinkansen passenger has ever died. A door closed on him awkwardly. I suspect he was running late and his ticker expired from the shame of it. Bullet trains stop at platforms for 60 seconds. A train arriving two minutes late triggers a full-scale inquiry. I was shown a printed schedule. Departure times were given down to units of 15 seconds.
A Japanese official told me how Railways Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, after a ride, had declared his intention to build one in India. Imagining a bullet-to-bullet collision, I said, “Not for us. Not yet.” I was later told Lalu had nearly skipped the ride because it would have meant he missed breakfast — so he ate on the train.
Rite of the rising sun
China, South Korea and Taiwan have bullets. Vietnam is planning one. There’s a history. Japan used the bullet train, the Tokyo Tower and the 1964 Olympics to mark its postwar return to the global stage. Since then, every East Asian nation out to prove its economic street cred tries to tick the same boxes.
Remembering Japan took a World Bank loan to develop the first Shinkansen, I asked if the trains made money. “Too much profit,” smiled the official. It wasn’t always so. Japan Railway went broke in the 1980s because politicians demanded so many expensive bullet trains. Now it’s private, profitable and builds with cashflow in mind.
The driver’s cabin was silent, except for the driver. But at least I got an eyeful of zoom as I peered through the rain and down the track. The driver called out like a metronome as the train climbed from zero to 200, a computer screen graphing the speed. A hair rose on the back of my neck as we entered a tunnel and another bullet train came hurtling toward us on the parallel track.
Two hours later it was over amid much bowing. A black gift bag had literature extolling the virtues of the latest N700 series. You had to be Japanese to appreciate the pictures juxtaposing trains with Mount Fuji and cherry blossoms, but a brochure signalled how Japan was going to set down new markers for its neighbours. That the train could top 300 was buried in page four. What made the frontispiece was that the N700s consumed half the energy of their original ancestor, thus making “major contributions to the effort to counter global warming”. This was beyond just commuting, Japan Railways assured that this Shinkansen would “transform the future of people, railway and the Earth.”