Japanese Bullet Train (Shinkansen) Experience!

Trains in general and Bullet trains (locally known as Shinkansens) in particular are the lifelines of Japan. Approximately one fourth of Japanese population commutes by train every single day. Japanese engineers have mastered the art of building and operating a super complicated network of safest and most punctual train system in the world. Thanks to the bullet trains I could travel from Osaka to Tokyo and Tokyo to Hiroshima and back to Osaka all in matter of few hours, though these destinations are 100s of kms away. (Fastest Nagomi train can take you from Tokyo to Hiroshima in 4 hours flat, a distance of around 800+ kms. They are practically faster than flights, considering end to end time (time at airport+ flight time). Though the bullet trains have a top speed of 320 kmph, the average speed is around 200 kmph+ because of various cities they have to stop at.

In this post I share my experience with Japan's famed bullet trains and some interesting facts about them.

Above: Two Shinkansens ready for departure in Tokyo station
Below: A Shinkansen approaching Kyoto station
As I landed in Osaka Kansai and spent first 2 days in Osaka and Kyoto, I got to board the bullet trains only on my 3rd day in Japan. Used bullet train to reach Tokyo from Kyoto, then back to Kyoto, Kyoto to Hiroshima, Hiroshima to Himeji and Himeji to Osaka.

The cost aspect- how expensive are the bullet trains?:
Japan is an expensive country. Train travel is expensive too. The 800km, 4 hour train journey between Tokyo and Hiroshima that I mentioned above costs about 18400 YEN (INR 10500 or USD 163) for an unreserved seat in the fastest Nazomi trains. Shorter distances are proportionately cheaper but still its lots of money. People find value in the trains despite the cost, so the train network is able to sustain and grow while offering highest levels of service standards.

Thankfully the tourists are entitled to what's known as JR Pass- more about this in a separate post later. JR Pass allows unlimited train journey for a limited duration (like 7 days) across all trains operated by JR network. Without the concept of JR Pass no way I could have afforded all the journey at actual cost.

Above: advantage of going early- whole compartment for me!

How easy it is to identify and board the bullet train in Japan?
Extremely easy. English signage exist everywhere to help you identify where to go for your trains. JR staff are always smiling and helpful to guide you in right direction. Lots of markings on the platform to indicate where the unreserved compartment will be. I faced absolutely no problems. Bullet trains get a dedicated portion in major railway stations, like Shin-Osaka, Shin-Kobe etc

Where to identify bullet train schedules?
http://www.hyperdia.com/ is an extremely friendly website to know bullet train timings. It has a provision to exclude Nazomi trains (which are not covered under JR Pass). Using this you can figure out how many minutes before next train, or how to reach a destination.

How reliable are the bullet trains?
100%. They are always on time. Accidents are near zero.

Can we buy food inside?
Yes, a small cart full of food and drink items are sold inside- usually includes coffee, green tea, meals etc. Coffee costs about 160 YEN

Are there entertainment systems?
No, not in the Hikari class I have traveled in.

How is the comfort?
Great. See the leg room in below picture. Recline is decent, charging points are available and windows are large.


Are the bullet trains crowded?
Though I traveled always on unreserved ticket, never faced a situation where I had to stand. Nor I saw anyone standing. But it is possible that train gets crowded at time and one will have to stand, if not willing to pay extra for a reserved seat.

Do they run 24x7?
No. Bullet trains run only in day time, like from 6 AM till 11 PM or so. I thought this is their biggest drawback- if they had a night service I could have traveled between cities in the night and save some valuable time for siteseeing. But there's a reason why they don't operate in night. Read next section.

The secret behind the success of Japan's Railway network, particularly bullet trains
From what I've read, seen and understood, below are the secrets behind the reliability and safety of bullet trains.
1. No night operation. Every night, an army of 3000+ workers inspect the tracks, replace damaged rails, subject the trains to maintenance, ready it for next day. This extensive and rigorous maintenance has ensured un-interrupted service.
2. Light weight trains: Shinkansens are far lighter, do not have several dozen compartments. So they put lot less pressure on the tracks compared to a longer/heavier train
3. Separate dedicated track for Shinkansen. Bullet trains get a dedicated elevated track. Bullet trains do not share track with local trains, there's no roads crossing the bullet train track. This means near zero disturbance
4. Extensive training: Drivers are trained to stop at the exact spot so that train doors alight to platform gates. Conductors also assist in this. Within 2 to 3 minutes train can stop, passengers get out, new passengers get in and train is ready to move.
5. Culture: Trains have become part of Japanese culture. The conductor bows to the train/compartment while entering and exiting. Despite the job being routine and boring, every staff of the railways take their work seriously and treat guests with smile all the time.
The future:
Japan is working on Maglev or Magnetic Levitation technology, in which trains run by magnetic force, without physical contact with tracks. While some test runs have already been made, it is said to take several years before all of Japan's high speed trains will get replaced by Maglev. Maglev will reduce the journey time by one third (current bullet trains take 3 hours before Osaka and Tokyo, Maglev can cover it in 1)
Below: Mount Fuji, as seen from my bullet train window.
Bullet trains in India- my thoughts:
Modi Government is planning bullet trains in India. Good thought but following actions will be needed
- Need for new dedicated tracks. Existing tracks are already stressed, crowded. Bullet trains will need a separate track, without having to share it with road, local trains etc. This takes lots of time and effort to build.
- A will to charge premium. Trains cost lot of money to run and maintain. If introducing an expensive proposition like bullet train, government should have the guts to charge premium and back it up by providing quality and reliable service. Sustaining bullet train program with govt support may not be viable.
Some think it is waste of money. But if it can be built and run successfully it can give good ROI, take load off highways and airports. All lies in implementation, something we're not really good at Corruption, laziness can spoil the purpose.
Read other Japan posts here. Any questions on bullet trains (not that I am expert, but can try)? or comments? Do add below.

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