We spent enough time on the Bullet Trains that I started to notice some differences with regular trains, and confirmed them when I returned. There are so many “gee whiz” facts, that I decided to summarize them here.
There are many different Shinkansen lines operated by the 5 separate companies of the Japan Railways Group.
Japan is extremely hilly, so a fast train has to go through mountains, not up and down or around the hills. It seems like half of each trip is in tunnels. Actually not half, but a lot of time is in tunnels.
The train is so fast that there are few if any grade crossings (flashing lights and dropped barriers). Most of the track is elevated.
The track is wider gauge – actually the 4 feet 8 1/2 inches that is standard in the United States, rather than the 3 feet 6 inch gauge used elsewhere in Japan. This creates more stability; the demonstration of the better stability and safety has led to other countries copying the wider gauge. Why the odd 4′ 8 1/2″ size? Arguments go back to with width of ruts, based on the width of axles of horse drawn wagons, which arguably is the width of two horse’s butts, back to Roman times.
The thing I actually noticed first, was that the insulators on the Shinkansen overhead power lines were far larger than on the regular train lines. I was right. The bullet trains use 25,000 volts AC (60 Hz) while the regular trains use 1,500 volts DC. Each axle is powered rather than having a heavy locomotive pulling the train, thus it can accelerate faster leaving a station.
The station stops that I timed were from 60-90 seconds. The trains are from 10 to 16 cars, carrying over 1,300 passengers. At peak times there can be as many as 13 trains per hour in each direction. Despite monsoons and earthquakes, their overall average delay from schedule was 54 seconds, but the best year the delay was only 18 seconds.
The cars are air sealed so the pressure doesn’t change when entering tunnels at high speed.
In 60 years of operation there have been no fatalities caused the the railroad, and only one due to a passenger getting caught in the door. There have been several suicides from people jumping in front of or out of a train. There is even an earthquake sensor that quickly stops the train when an earthquake is sensed.