The Shinkansen story

In the 1950s, during the lingering wake of the devastation of the Second World War, Japan was intensely focused on growing the nation’s economy. A large portion of the country’s population lived in or between the cities of Tokyo and Osaka, which were separated by just 320 miles of train track.

Every day, tens of thousands of people traveled between the two cities. And in addition to the thousands of people who traveled on these trains, tons of industrial goods were transported on them, too. But, because Japan had so many mountains spread throughout and in between the two cities that it made an already old and outdated railway system even slower due to the rough and mountainous Japanese terrain the trains were forced to travel on; making the trip as long as 20 hours.

So, in 1955, the head of the Japanese railway system issued a challenge to the nation’s finest engineers: invent a faster train.

Six months later, a team unveiled a prototype locomotive capable of going 65 miles per hour—a speed that, at the time, made it among the fastest passenger trains in the world.

“Not good enough,” the head of the railway system said. He wanted 120 miles per hour.

The engineers told the head of the railway that this just wasn’t a realistic expectation—and was, in fact, a pretty dangerous undertaking because a train designed to go that fast (120 miles p/hr) along the sharp and mountainous Japanese topography would definitely derail if it turned too sharply, and end up killing everyone on board as a result. No way could they design a train to go that fast.

So, instead of 120 miles an hour, the engineers said that 70 miles an hour was a much more realistic number to shoot for, 75 if they were lucky. Any faster and the trains would just crash.

“Why do the trains need to turn?” the railway head asked.

“There are numerous mountains between the cities,” the engineers replied.

The railway head shot back—“Why not make tunnels, then?”

Tunnels, huh? The labor required to tunnel through that much territory could require just as many physical and financial resources as it did to rebuild the entire city of Tokyo after World War II.

Three months after that conversation, the engineers came back to the railway chief with an engine that could go as fast as 75 miles an hour.

You can probably already guess what the railway chief said – “75 miles an hour has absolutely no chance of transforming the nation!”

Incremental improvements would only yield incremental economic growth.

The only way to revamp the nation’s transportation system was to rebuild every element of how these trains functioned. Everything.

So they got to work, and over the next two years, the engineers experimented: they designed train cars that each had their own motors. They rebuilt gears so they meshed with less friction. They discovered that their new cars were too heavy for Japan’s existing tracks, and so they reinforced the rails, which had the added bonus of increasing the train’s stability, which added another ½ mile per hour to train’s speed.

There were hundreds of innovations, both big and small, just like these; each of which made the trains just a little bit faster than before.

And after tons of tiny tweaks and years of hard work and hustle under the Japanese railway chief’s go-big-or-go-home style of leadership, the very same team of engineers that thought it was impossible to build a 120 mile train—ended up building a 120 mile train.

In 1964, the Tōkaidō Shinkansen, the world’s first bullet train, left Tokyo and made its 320-mile trip towards Osaka. Except this time, instead of taking twenty hours, the trip took only four.

A fascinating story about how the Shinkansen was built from “Smarter, Faster, Better” by Charles Duhigg. Often, the prerequisite for building great things is relentlessness and a willingness to question every current norm and start anew.