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Tokyo: At 250 km an hour, lack of vibration or sound as a cup of coffee sits securely on a tray is an obvious, but revelatory experience as the Tokyo-Nagoya Shinkansen flashes past a crowded countryside. Passengers in the cabin, however, remain immersed in scrolling mobile screens, scanning laptops or just leaning back in their seats for a restful nap.
The bullet train network spanning most of Japan is close to ubiquitous with a rare record of zero fatalities in 50 years — a safety goal any transport system will envy. At the same time it’s technology keeps improving, with top speeds of 320 kmph and a punctuality that is usually no more than a few seconds adrift. Over the years, the Shinkansen has come to epitomise Japanese innovation.
With the high speed rail project slated for an Indian debut, the 508 km corridor from Ahmedabad to Mumbai, is due for operations from August, 2022, there is a busy buzz at Japan’s railway bureau division of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism involved in the project. “The training of Indian staff is already underway as the technology is fairly unique and its operation and maintenance is demanding,” said Takeyuki Nakano of the International Division.
With Japan facilitating a loan of 1.8 trillion Yen on very easy terms, India’s bullet train project is on its way with work expected to begin on an under-sea tunnel near the Mumbai end. Tariffs have not been decided yet but even as soil testing and land acquisition - always time consuming - is in progress. The make in India component, officials say, will induct performance management and technology that make Japan a world leader in manufacture and operation of bullet trains.
But the Shinkansen, said Nakamura of the City Bureau, is not just the train and technology. It is also the involvement of local communities and governments in managing the change that follows the bullet train’s wake. The Nagoya and Tokyo stations and surrounding areas have been transformed. The stations include towers that offer commercial space while city planning integrates multi-modal transport, residential and commercial spaces nearby. Wide roads and urban architecture that initially followed the Delhi Metro are a small indication of what the Shinkansen project can deliver.
The linkages at stations are intended to improve rail-bus-pedestrian movement. At larger stations, an air link is an added facility as planners see bullet trains as a booster dose for local economies. “This aspect of the high speed rail is often not fully appreciated. It generates employment and business apart from benefits of the transfer of technology applicable in areas other than railways,” says Nakamura.
The Shinkansen are about pride and precision. The turnaround time, Japan Rail East officials at Tokyo station said, is all of 12 minutes. It is an operation worth beholding as staff enter cabins, sweep away waste, empty trash, set right furnishings and step out to take a bow as passengers wait to alight. “The high speed rail project is more than building infrastructure. It is a convergence of visions of India and Japan’s top leaderships,” said Masafumi Shukuri, Chairman, International High Speed Rail Association.