Hayabusa - the epitome of train travel
Two significant events took place while I was in Japan last month.
The Sakura (cherry blossoms) bloomed and the Shinkansen (literally New
Stem Line) saw the addition of the fastest train yet. Called the
Hayabusa (Peregrine Falcon in Japanese), the train reaches a maximum
speed of 320 Km/h, which exactly matches the highest speed achieved by
France’s TGV (Train Grande Vitesse). And I was lucky to ride one on the
very day they entered service (March 16).
The Japan Rail Pass
A Hayabusa train is a magnificent sight, even when it is perfectly
still. I was blown away when I saw a couple of them at the Tokyo
station, poised for the long journey ahead. The striking 15-metre long,
fluidic nose gives an impression of speed - akin to a peregrine falcon
swooping down on a prey below. The front nose alone is a marvellous feat
of engineering, aesthetically designed to minimise wind resistance.
The entire train is a work of art with its green and white design
complemented by a pink strip in the middle to denote speed. In fact, the
nose design and the sheer speed of Shinkansen trains had given rise to
the popular English term ‘Bullet Train’.
A Japan Railways (JR) Hayabusa (Technically called E5 Series
Shinkansen) does the 714 Km Tokyo-Shin Aomori (on the northern tip of
the Honshu island) in precisely two hours and 59 minutes (no, it is not
three hours), 11 minutes faster than before. Yes, a plane will do that
in one hour, but you have to factor in airport waiting times, long
airport transfers at either end and stringent security measures. On the
other hand, the Shinkansen whisks you from city centre to city centre -
you could be in your hotel just minutes after disembarking.
Another advantage: Once on board, there is absolutely no turbulence –
you can keep a glass of water on the tray, without a drop being spilled,
until the journey ends.
You will be cocooned in air-conditioned luxury in any class in the
Shinkansen, but the Granclass on the Hayabusa does rival even the first
class cabins of some airlines. With only 18 genuine leather seats in
each Granclass car, there is plenty of room to recline and relax. If you
want meal service, just press the button on the seat and your wish will
be fulfilled in no time.
Getting into a Hayabusa, or any Shinkansen for that matter, is an
experience in itself. The trains arrive exactly on time (the story that
you can set your watch by Shinkansen arrival times is true) and every
station has clear signs where each compartment would come to a stop.
Before a journey commences, an army of workers boards the train and
cleans it in exactly seven minutes. They also rotate the seats,
depending on the direction of travel. Once they are gone in a flash, you
are free to board. Just look for the seat number if you have a reserved
seat. On board announcements regarding stations and stopping times are
made in both Japanese and English, so foreign travellers need not worry.
Story of Shinkansen
The Shinkansen story begins in the late 1950s, when the Japanese
Government approved plans for a 200 Km/h line between Tokyo and Osaka.
(The journey then took seven hours and 30 minutes by normal train). The
first Shinkansen train was flagged off on October 1, 1964, coinciding
with the Tokyo Olympic Games. The first (Series 0) trains were a far cry
from today’s ultra-sleek ones, but it was a revolutionary step forward
in the 60s. Following the privatisation of JR into six private companies
in 1987, the Shinkansen network grew at an even faster pace. Today, the
Shinkansen network covers most Japanese cities, with a few exceptions
and even these will be included over the next decade.
The interior of the
Then and now, the Shinkansen relied on four key attributes: Safety,
precision, speed and comfort. Safety is the most important of all, with
hundreds of trains running in every direction. The Shinkansen Operations
Centre in Tokyo keeps a close watch on every train. To date, there have
been only a very few accidents involving Shinkansen trains.
Several technologies ensure the safety and comfort of Shinkansen
passengers. Most lines have a safety train known as ‘Doctor Yellow’
which runs once every 10 days at a speed of 270 Km/h, checking voltage,
track conditions, wire and pantograph (the device that transmits power
from overhead wires to the train) conditions and various other factors
and transmitting data in real time to the centre. The Shinkansens
running in earthquake-prone areas also have an earthquake rapid alarm
system known as TERRA-S. (No injuries were reported to any Shinkansen
passengers during the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011).
The Shinkansen may have reached its maximum speed using pure
electricity, but there is another alternative which is already being
used in Shanghai in neighbouring China: Magnetic Levitation (MagLev). As
the name implies, the train is levitated using superconducting magnets.
The Shanghai MagLev has a top speed of 431 Km/h, with the potential to
reach 501 Km/h. The train runs one centimetre above the ground.
Variation of technology
JR Central is testing a slight variation of this technology, where
the train runs a full 10 cm above ground, at an especially designed
track in Yamanashi prefecture just 100 Km away from Tokyo. With this
technology, it will be possible to reach speeds exceeding 500 Km/h and
Osaka will be just one hour away from Tokyo. It will also be
JR Central already has a name for the proposed MagLev line - Chuo
Shinkansen. However, you will get to travel in one only in 2027, because
development, construction and pre-commercial testing will take several
years. The first MagLevs will only run up to Nagoya (40 minutes) and the
track will then be extended to Osaka.
Hayabusas, poised for the long journey
Pic : Pramod de Silva
Travelling on the Shinkansen is an experience that should not be
missed if you are visiting Japan. The only caveat is that Shinkansen
tickets are not cheap. However, foreigners are eligible for a special
concession which is envied by the Japanese: The Japan Rail Pass. You
have to buy it outside Japan and ‘convert’ it at JR offices once in
Japan. The Pass allows unlimited reserved travel on JR Shinkansen/local
trains (with the exception of Nozomi Shinkansen trains), buses and
ferries for seven, 14 or 21 days.
A 21-day first-class pass costs only 80,000 Yen (Rs. 100,000) and an
ordinary class pass would cost only 58,000 Yen (Rs. 74,000). If you do
not have a JR Rail Pass, you could purchase only a handful of Shinkansen
tickets for that amount. This is the best way to travel around Japan.
And do not forget to get off at Nagoya to see the Shinkansen Museum,
where the very first Shinkansen (Series 0) and all subsequent Shinkansen
trains are on display.
From the Series 0 to today’s Series E5 Hayabusa, the Shinkansen has
evolved to become the most well-known high-speed rail service in the
world. Many other countries have ordered Shinkansen train systems (they
are already in use in Taiwan on the 345 Km Taipei-Kaohsiung line/95
minutes travel time), making it a global household word for speed and
safety in one convenient package.
(The writer’s trip was organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs