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Bullet Train

Keeping Train Travel Alive

The 0-series Shinkansen. (JR Central)

Inside the 0-series. (JR Central)

The plan to build a high-speed rail link between the big cities of Tokyo and Osaka started in 1957, when people were beginning to worry that highways and passenger airline services would kill off rail travel around the world. In those days, the fastest trains in Japan were the Tsubame (meaning swallow) and Hato (pigeon) steam locomotives, whose top speed was just 95 kilometers per hour (59 miles per hour). Back then, the train trip from Tokyo to Osaka took seven and a half hours. People decided that it was time to build faster trains that could compete with cars and planes. The Railway Technical Research Institute, an organization that studied railways, developed a plan to build a high-performance train system that would cut the travel time from Tokyo to Osaka by more than half, to three hours. This new system was named the Shinkansen, meaning new trunk line.

Under the plan, Shinkansen train tracks would be wider than regular train tracks and would be built almost alongside existing lines. The Japanese government approved the plan, and Japan National Railways started building the Shinkansen in April 1959. Just five and a half years later, Japan's high-speed railway system was complete. Shinkansen trains named Hikari (meaning light) and Kodama (echo) started running along the full 553 kilometers (344 miles) of the Tokaido route connecting Osaka and Tokyo. The new trains could reach speeds of up to 210 kilometers per hour. When they first started running, Hikari trains could get from Tokyo to Osaka in just four hours. By 1965, technology improvements had cut the travel time to three hours and 10 minutes, making these the fastest trains in the world. The Shinkansen was nicknamed the "bullet train" in English because of its bullet-like speed.