Shinkansen: Why we can’t have nice things

Will high-speed rail ever really happen? 

I spent 7 hours on Japan’s bullet trains, traveling from Kagoshima to Kanazawa. 7 hours? That’s a long time. Well, here’s the distance I covered.


That is, about half the country, by train. Could I have flown? Yes, but:

  • It would have been more expensive considering that I already bought an all-inclusive Rail Pass.
  • I fucking love trains. (I love planes, too, just not riding in them.)
  • If you add check-in, security, and boarding, a two-hour flight could mean four hours of transit.
  • A plane is frequently late. The trains here, for reasons I’m struggling to understand, are on time to the minute, even those that travel long distances like the ones I took today. The ticket says the train will be in Osaka at 5:17 p.m., even though it’s coming all the way from Hakata, about 400 miles away? At worst, it’s a little early, at 5:16 p.m.
  • And the ride could’ve been shorter, but for a significant stretch the train was slowed because of rail damage due to the Kumamoto earthquake.

So since we (the U.S.) want high-speed rail, what does the example of the pioneers of this technology tell us? Ironically, the situation has flipped; A Concise History of Japan tells me that after Japan began to industrialize in the late 19th century, Japanese who visited Europe and America were in awe of the trains in these places, among many other things.

Now I’m sitting here thinking, I took an Amtrak once. And Amtrak hardly compares. The Acela Express, which runs the Northeast Corridor, is the only high-speed rail service in the U.S. And that says nothing of our railways’ safety record, as recent accidents show. In contrast–and shockingly to me–the Shinkansen to date has suffered no fatalities from crashes (there have been 2 derailments).

How did Japan get such a fancy rail system? The idea was first proposed in the 1930s by the Japan National Railways Group:

Because of the mountainous terrain, the existing network consisted of 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) narrow-gauge lines, which generally took indirect routes and could not be adapted to higher speeds. Consequently, Japan had a greater need for new high-speed lines  than countries where the existing standard gauge or broad gauge rail system had more upgrade potential.

It was abandoned until the late ’50s when JNR President Shinji Sogo pushed for it, despite the growing commercial aviation industry.

The cost of constructing the Shinkansen was at first estimated at nearly 200 billion yen, which was raised in the form of a government loan, railway bonds and a low-interest loan of US$80 million from the World Bank. Initial cost estimates, however, had been deliberately understated and the actual figures were nearly double at about 400 billion yen. As the budget shortfall became clear in 1963, Sogo resigned to take responsibility.

Nevertheless, success was immediate:

It enabled day trips between Tokyo and Osaka, the two largest metropolises in Japan, changed the style of business and life of the Japanese people significantly, and increased new traffic demand. The service was an immediate success, reaching the 100 million passenger mark in less than three years on 13 July 1967, and one billion passengers in 1976.

File:Shinkansen map 201603 en.png

Ultimately, the investment has paid off for Japan, as the rail service has retained significant market share for medium-distance trips, competing with air. And I can see why–flying between LA and SF has never made sense to me, but driving is both too long and idiotic. (Take your pick: do your best to whiz up and down the ugly I-5 landscape, or sit for longer while edging along the cliffs of the Pacific Coast Highway.)

But it’s obvious the U.S. is too big a country to be linked by rail in the way that Japan is, nor is it necessary to invest to that level. Flight still is the best way to get from New York to SF, and to move goods.

That said, cities and regions nationwide are already planning high-speed rail projects. Texas is buying Shinkansen for its rail network, according to the Japan News. It’s hard not to see why they’re making this investment. Imagine the mega-regions below increasingly intra-connected. Once in, say, Denver, you could zoom down to Santa Fe for sightseeing or a business meeting, giving that city an economic boost. It could also help smaller cities in the area that wouldn’t normally be as accessible or worth the effort.

And potentially, the regions could be connected with each other, though I’m not sure it’s worth upgrading those thousands of miles of rail tracks.

So, how do we make this happen? Note that Japan’s high-speed project relied partially on government financing. In the U.S., the federal government has always played a key role in railroad development. It’s actually one of the things you can say with little doubt made America ‘great.’ (Listening, Trump? Oh, you’re still talking. Never mind.) In the 1800s:

Government support, most especially the detailing of officers from the Army Corps of Engineers – the nation’s only repository of civil engineering expertise – was crucial in assisting private enterprise in building nearly all the country’s railroads…

Authorized by the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 and heavily backed by the federal government, the first transcontinental railroad was the culmination of a decades-long movement to build such a line and was one of the crowning achievements of the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, completed four years after his death. The building of the railroad required enormous feats of engineering and labor in the crossing of plains and high mountains by the Union Pacific Railroad (UP) and Central Pacific Railroad, the two federally chartered enterprises that built the line westward and eastward respectively. The building of the railroad was motivated in part to bind the Union together during the strife of the American Civil War…

It is the conventional historical view that the railroads were indispensable to the development of a national market in the United States in the late 19th century.

Who knew the loud train tracks down the street had such a huge impact on the development of the country. What is the federal government doing today?

In February 2011, Vice President Biden proposed spending $53 billion on improved passenger rail service over six years. The plan drew fire from majority Republicans in the House of Representatives, who preferred private investment rather than government investment. No money was appropriated for passenger rail in either the FY 2011 or FY 2012 budgets.

Silly Biden. In the post-sequestration era, we ought to have been happy just to have a military and not default on the debt. But as we’re moving away from that fun episode, we definitely need to revisit how we’re going to revitalize infrastructure, and how rail fits into the picture.

Hopefully it fits like this.


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