NHK World: Shinkansen History

The Shinkansen was not just a high speed rail system for passengers to enjoy a fast trip, but also about "pride" as Japan embarked on a new era of science and technology, recovering from WW2. There are many videos on Youtube, with narrators going on and on about how impressed the foreign visitors and transportation experts were back in 1964. Safety is a major factor, as well as the comfort. "The coffee cup didn't move, it was such a smooth ride!" and the like. Other videos emphasize the innovations, such as the ATC (Automatic Train Control) system that was used from 1964 which was a novel feature to guide trains by computers (using the state-of-the-art Packard Bell from 1972) for safety.

You get to see "Dr. Yellow" - the special 992 train that checks the routes with all kinds of sophisticated equipment. We learn that every night, a crew of some 3,000 workers are out inspecting the tracks, making sure that "track alignment is millimeter accurate." There have been no fatal accidents in the 45 year history of Shinkansen operations. More details in this video.

OK, OK, couldn't NHK give us just one single point of view opposed to this? A single grumpy farmer who wasn't too happy about fast trains bypassing his town or village? I suppose not.

The 3 videos from NHK World have English narration by Peter Barakan, starting at Tokyo Station, the main terminal for the Shinkansen. In part 1, the engineers and experts with the vision are introduced, and the technological challenges they faced.

Part 2 discusses how the economic boom of the 1950s (in no small part spurred by the Korean War, although that is left unsaid) led to the development of the Shinkansen.

Rare vintage footage from the late 1950s and early 1960s from NHK. Reducing the travel time between Tokyo and Osaka from 6 1/2 hours to about 3 hours was the aim. At the time, the world's top speed train was the French Mistral, which had a top speed of 160 km/h. NHK says, "Japanese engineers set their sight at a top speed of 200 km/h."

Tadanao Miki was the main designer for the Shinkansen, getting a chance to work for peaceful purposes... It was his idea to use the streamline design of wartime fighter planes for trains, to cut wind resistance and boost the train speed. "If we want a beautiful airflow, we must give it a beautiful shape..." That was Miki's guiding philosophy, as he crafted one clay model after another.

Other important engineers are introduced, such as Tadashi Matsudaira, who found a way to solve the problem of the Hunting motion at high speeds, by improving the spring suspension using air pressure.

In part 2, you also get to see rare footage of the first trial run in March 30, 1963, as they rewrote the record books by reaching 200 km/h - and it kept going to 256 km/h: "It was the fastest train in the world."

I didn't know that the public was asked to name the new train. 560,000 suggestions were submitted. The winning entry was "Hikari" or light.

If you understand Japanese, do watch the 7 part documentary, with more rare footage and interviews also included in the shorter NHK World program. Here is part 1/7:

万物創世紀 新幹線 1/7


Tom O said…
Boy, am I going to enjoy all this! These trains really are like a 'yume'.
Martin J Frid said…
Thanks for the comment Tom, I thought you might like this. The rare videos are a treat, as we don't really know how the trains were developed. If you have the time, do watch the 7 part Japanese series of documentaries too. I only linked to 1/7 but you can easily find the rest on Youtube.

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