While the US quibbles over whether to drag our passenger rail service out of the 19th century, Japan is about to step deep into the 21st. Your children will be riding this one day.
Back in 1964, while Americans were acquainting themselves with a place called Vietnam, the Japanese were introducing a new concept in passenger rail service — the Shinkansen.
The world would come to know it as “the bullet train.”
It was sleek. It was efficient. It was safe. And with an initial top speed of 130 miles per hour, it was the fastest passenger train on the planet.
It’s no longer the world’s fastest passenger train, but even after nearly five decades, it’s still faster — and with only one exception, exponentially faster — than anything on rails in the United States.
Now, after decades of research and testing, Japan is about to take the next step, and it’s a big one.
The Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun is reporting that the government is finally going to link three of Japan’s largest cities, Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka, with a new Shinkansen — at speeds topping 313 mph.
But this will not be the fastest passenger train on rails. This will be a maglev train, which means there will be no rails.
“Maglev” is short for magnetic levitation. Basically, a lot of powerful magnets built into the rail cars and the track bed serve to lift the electrically powered train slightly off the ground and propel it down the line — at speeds ranging from impractical to unthinkable for a conventional train.
The technology was first developed, oddly enough, in the United States. The US, Canada, Germany and Japan all spent years testing it, and all found it to work, but it had two practical limitations.
The first is that it’s expensive as hell to build. The second is that the nature of maglev means that only maglev trains can run on it.
Still, the idea of a 300-mph passenger train was just too good to die.
Los Angeles to San Francisco in an hour? New York City to Washington DC in 45 minutes? Chicago to Dallas in two hours and change?
No need for a long ride in a pricey taxi or a crowded shuttle, because when you step out of the train station, you’re already in town — and all at a price cheaper than flying?
Yeah, I could do that. Bet you could, too.
But with American policymakers largely indifferent toward passenger rail — and lobbyists from the oil, airline and highway construction industries pushing Congress to kill it off — it was long presumed that either Germany or Japan would be the first to pull the trigger on maglev.
We all guessed wrong.
Buying German maglev technology, China stole a march on everybody, opening a maglev line in 2004 between Shanghai and its new international airport in Pudong.
Eighteen miles from city center to airport, in seven minutes? Hell, yeah!
I doubt that anyone in an official capacity in Tokyo would come right out and say it, but to see Beijing leap ahead of them that way that had to sting just a little bit.
Now, Japan is raising the bar. Their maglev would be the world’s fastest train to link multiple cities.
It’s going to take some doing. Construction is set to start in three years and isn’t expected to be finished until 2045. And it’s still obscenely expensive — $116 billion at current prices — a price tag which, thanks to inflation, is all but certain to go up.
The same arguments were made about the original Shinkansen, but the Japanese pushed ahead with it, anyway. The result was a passenger rail system decades ahead of its time, and the envy of the world.
Especially in the United States.
Meanwhile in Washington, American politicians quibble and squabble over whether to bring high-speed rail to the US, using the technology that Japan pioneered 46 years ago.
Technology that Japan is now leaving behind.