Bullet train claims new speed record

As well as being the fastest, the Japanese bullet train is the oldest, the most efficient, and surely the best-equipped high-speed train in the world.

If I were an executive, with meetings to hold, managing directors to schmooze with, big transactions to direct, and expensive dinners to reserve, all could be easily accomplished on the bullet train.

If I were a nursing mother, I could feed the baby, change its nappy, and dress for dinner in secure privacy. For a wheelchair-bound passenger, there would be no problem - as well as private-meeting facilities, long- distance phones, digital financial news, and ladies' powder-rooms, the Max Yamabiko bullet train on which I travelled from Tokyo to the northern city of Morioka has a lift for disabled passengers. Yamabiko means "Echo" (bullet trains all bear faintly poetic names). Max stands for Multi-Amenity eXpress, and all it lacks is a barber's shop and multi-gym.

Sinking back into my deep- pile seat on the top floor of the double-decker carriage as rice fields whipped by at 140mph, I was filled with intoxicating feelings of urgency and mission.

Japan, scattered over four main islands, is 1,200 miles from end to end, but the brilliance and efficiency of its trains make it feel like a small and compact country. This week, it became smaller still with the opening of the latest extension to the shinkansen (which means simply "new express line"), to the northern city of Akita.

Once transport to the airport and check-in times have been taken into account, it is slightly quicker to get from Tokyo to many Japanese cities by rail.

A German teacher, Jobst-Mathias Spannagel, came to Japan last month to set a world record for the number of rail miles travelled in a single day - 2,607.5 on five separate journeys. All these feats are made possible by the bullet train.

Though synonymous with high-speed travel, the bullet train had lost ground to the French TGV, which holds the current official record for average speed between two stations of 157mph, achieved between Paris and St Pierre des Corps. In a bid to regain the lead, the Japanese introduced the Nozomi line in 1992, and on Saturday the Nozomi-503, equipped with a long-nose lead carriage and new sound-proofing for a faster, quieter ride, smashed through the record.

Carrying 1,300 passengers in 16 carriages from Osaka to Fukuoka, it hit speeds of up to 300kph (186mph) and sustained an average speed of 261.8kph (163mph) between stops in Hiroshima and Kokura, on the southern island of Kyushu. Its owners, the West Japan Railway Company, have applied to the Guinness Book of World Records for official recognition. It was an important recovery of image. No other high-speed train has become such an institution or played such a symbolic part in a nation's development.

The shinkansen was built for the Tokyo Olympics in the pivotal year of 1964. The spectacle of the bullet train, scything through the countryside with Mt Fuji in the background, became an instant and memorable national image. Along with the 16 gold medals won in the Games by Japanese athletes, it marked an important moment in the country's growing self-confidence and rehabilitation.

Since then, the bullet train has embodied the best and worst about Japan. During the 1970s it became a byword for corruption, thanks to Kakuei Tanaka, Japan's most notorious prime minister, who eventually came to a sticky end after the Lockheed bribery scandal.

Tanaka came from Niigata, a busy, but not especially significant port on Japan's north-west coast. Like all good Japanese politicians, he depended for his grass-roots support on local businessmen who bankrolled his political activities in return for juicy public-works projects awarded from Tokyo. To the delight of his constituents, Tanaka presented them with the greatest prize of all - their own shinkansen line, linking obscure Niigata with Tokyo Central.

Never mind that there were far more worthy candidates for this honour, never mind the environmental impact of the project on the beautiful Japan Alps through which the line was bored. Tanaka was looking after his own (with undoubted financial benefits to himself) and, even after his criminal conviction, the late prime minister is remembered in Niigata as a hero.

Bullet train-spotting is a complicated business these days - in the 32 years since its debut, the original design has been improved and modified in a hungry quest for greater speed and volume. The Nozomis do not in fact look like bullets, but have tapering wedge-shaped aerodynamic noses, designed to reduce wind resistance and (the shinkansen's besetting problem) noise pollution.

Tests are already being carried out on the maglev, an amazing vehicle which levitates above its rails on a magnetic cushion, and may one day carry passengers as fast as 300mph. This summer, the Fujita Corporation began tests on models of the ultimate bullet train - the geoplane, a winged cigar tube which will take off from its rails to fly through tunnels between Tokyo and Osaka at 370mph.

But after the initial excitement has worn off, travelling by shinkansen is a curiously empty experience.

The Max Yamabiko is the QE2 of bullet trains, a cruise liner on rails capable of carrying 1,235 people in its 12 amenity-rich double-decker carriages.

At full tilt, it can reach 150 mph, but even close to that there is no sensation of speed. The most dramatic place to witness the bullet train is from outside, standing on the platform as a non-stop express passes through the station, a minor earthquake of tremors and back-draught.

From the inside, the only sound to punctuate its noiseless glide is the whirr of the air conditioner; there is no clickety- clack or Chattanooga- choo-choo, and the views which whip by through the thick and even glass have the unreality of images on a television screen.

Passengers do not talk to each other. With its bowing stewardesses and their drinks trollies, the magazines in the seat backs, and the womb-like, squeaky-clean toilets, the shinkansen has more in common with Concord than the Flying Scotsman.

Perhaps this is the shinkansen's most remarkable achievement: that after 150 years of smoke, noise, smells, and discomfort, it has succeeded in taking the romance out of the railway.

On track for a record

On Saturday the Nozomi-503 hit an average speed of 163mph between Hiroshima and Kokura.

The current official record-holder, the French Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV), reaches an average speed of 157mph between Paris and St Pierre des Corps.

The Nozomi also matched the top speed reached by the TGV, 187mph.

The Eurostar from London to Paris reaches186mph for most of its journey on the French side of the Channel,.

The fastest speed recorded by a national rail system is 320.2 mph, by a TGV between Courtalain and Tours in May 1990.

The earliest speed record was achieved by Stephenson's Rocket on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway when it ran at 29.1mph on 8 October, 1829.

The Mallard was the fastest steam locomotive, reaching a speed of 125mph between Grantham and Peterborough in July 1938.

On 30 November, 1934, the Flying Scotsman hit 100mph for 600 yards between Grantham and Peterborough - although an experienced train-timer said it reached no more than 98mph.

The first regular scheduled service to hit speeds of more than 100mph was the Japanese shinkansen line. The service, introduced in 1964, took passengers from Tokyo to Osaka at an average speed of 103.3mph and a maximum speed of 130mph.

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