During previous research on the Shinkansen, I found few construction pictures and it appeared there was little in the way of comprehensive information. Since then further new sources have since been subsequently discovered – both official and personal accounts. Although these are written entirely in Japanese which made research rather slow going, they do illustrate the progress of the world’s first ever high speed line. From these I complied some posts with much stuff not featured in the English speaking part of the world. Thus without any further ado here’s an Introduction to the New Tokaido Line!
Map of the Tokaido Shinkansen showing the main stations.
First, a little bit of information. Yes I know I don’t have communication and do not know any other languages of any sort, but I tried my best. I went about this research in a methodological way. Second, the whole of this series consists of nearly 14,000 words. It means there will be quite a number of sections covering a very comprehensive history of the line through a period of fifty years up to 1964.
I have discussed the New Tokaido Line (and the other Shinkansen routes too) in a previous post and noted their exemplary construction, structure, design, excellent maintenance work at all levels of management and staff, and the extremely strict timekeeping that is practised. Everything is maintained in top condition and the trains themselves average a delay of just half a second delay each per year. The delays include the effects of weather phenomenon such as typhoons and heavy snow! It is things like this that holds the western world in awe of the Japanese’s way of building and maintaining high speed railways.
It too is a surprise learn their high speed trains were first proposed in the 1920s, and that is where we begin our story….
In those days trains between Tokyo and Osaka took over eleven and half hours at an average speed of 53 kmh or 32mph. The Ministry of Railways described this as ‘deplorable’ especially when they saw the speeds those lines in the west could achieve. As a result the Ministry envisaged new super expresses would cut those times drastically and the plans for these were drawn up….
The first of these super expresses began in 1929. How these were achieved was the fastest steam locomotives that were available got allocated to these new super trains. The steam locomotives were the Japanese class 51s or 53s which could just about attain a top speed of 70 mph. The only stops en route were at Yokohama, Nagoya and Kyoto and the times achieved was 8 hours and 20 minutes – but slightly faster in the up direction.
The Tokaido line is very steeply graded and even to keep those times ways had to be devised to keep the trains’ momentum on the line’s steepest banks. Banking engines of equal prowess were used on these sections, with just 30 seconds allocated for these engines to attach to the super expresses. As a result even on the steepest sections speeds of up to 80kmh/50mph could be attained.
Class C53 – and the later super streamlined Class C55 which replaced these. The New Tokaido Line’s engineer Hideo Shima (whom we read more about later) was involved in the design of the 55’s. Source: You Tube
It was a very difficult job involving split timing of trains, much upgrading of the locomotives, their water supply, the track involved and crewing turns, but it was done. The Tokaido Line was in fact considerably electrified during the 1930s however the steam locomotives always had the upper hand because of the need not to change locomotives and thus keep the super fast timings.
The biggest improvement on the original 3 foot 6 inch gauge Tokaido line was the Tanna tunnel which opened in 1934. It was a substantial upgrade but not wholly sufficient in terms of providing a full and comprehensive service to this very populous part of Japan. It did however allow the expresses to achieve even faster times.
A result of these early attempts was that the work had exercised the railway engineers’ minds in regards to the limitations of the country’s narrow gauge railway system. From there thoughts turned to the possibility of using a wider gauge. At this time only a handful of Japanese railways used standard gauge and this was rather seen as an expensive option in a country where nearly all its lines were of the ‘Cape Gauge.’
The huge Tanna tunnel opened on 1st December 1934. A test train emerges from the 7km bore. As the picture shows electrification came early to the tracks of the Tokaido line. Source: Twitter
By 1938 plans had been drawn up for a super fast line from Tokyo to Shimonoseki. Trains would attain a maximum speed of 160 km / h (100mph) and the entire journey would take 9 hours. The press named this new railway as the Dangan Ressha (or ‘the bullet train.’) Over the years it was debated whether it should be built to the standard gauge or even wider.
Once those proposals had been made in 1939, a noted rail engineer by the name of Shigenari Oishi and the then head of main line research (which was established to build new trains and even new railway routes) took it upon himself to walk the entire 985km between Tokyo and Shimonoseki in order to check personally the state of the present railway and work out the alignments along which a new line could possibly be built.
Shigenari Oishi – who walked the proposed Shinkansen route twice over to plan a possible course for its construction!
The specifications that were agreed upon in 1941 included standard gauge, a minimum curve radius of 2500 m and a maximum grade of 10 %. The loading gauge was to be 4800 mm height with a maximum width of 3400 mm. The trains were to be hauled by locomotives at speeds up to 200kmh, the journey between Tokyo and Osaka taking 4 and half hours.
Construction began in 1941 but was eventually stopped because of the war. In the fifties when the project was resurrected, Oishi took it upon himself to walk, for a second time, the entire 500 plus km between Tokyo and Osaka in order to determine where the now projected and more advanced Shinkansen should be built. He was one of three JNR engineers to receive in 1966 an Elmer Sperry award for the construction of the New Tokaido Line. Hideo Shima (more on him later) and Matsutaro Fujii (JNR’s chief engineer) were the other two.
In 1966 Elmer Sperry awards were given to Matsutaro Fujii, Hideo Shima and Shigenari Oishi. Source: Google Books
As we saw, under the direction of Shigenari Oishi planning of the New Tokaido Line began in 1939 and continued well into WWII before work was ultimately abandoned. The Nihonzaka tunnel, begun in 1941, was the only one on the new route to be completed and this was by 1944.
In that same year additional land for the line was purchased but not built upon. The total amount of the land purchased at that time meant at least 95 km of new railway could be built. However in the face of insurmountable difficulties it was ultimately decided to abandon the project.
This left a partially built trackbed with two tunnels, one completed at Nihonzaka and the other partially completed at New Tanna.
The partially finished Shintanna (or New Tanna) Tunnel was begun in 1942. Work was abandoned in January 1943. At least a kilometre of this 7km tunnel either end was built. Source: Gearpress
When the war had ended the railways were in a quite poor way. Eighty per cent of it was in the red. It was said by some that the outdated railway network would soon be moribund, as the passage below describes…
Just like horse-drawn carriages and sailing ships were taken over by trains and steamships in the beginning of the 19th century the latter half of the 20th century is the age of automobiles and airplanes, and now the railway is on the road to decline and extinction.
The Japan railways network was given a new identity in 1949. The Ministry of Railways devolved their responsibility to the new Japan National Railways (JNR.) In due course it was decided to give JNR more flexibility in determining how its railways should be run – and by 1955 JNR was given full autonomy in order that it could be free from government indecision.
By the time the fifties had arrived Japan was experiencing a boom in revival of fortunes, meaning research, development and industry was on a huge upward trend. This in turn doubled the demands on rail travel throughout the Tokaido system.
Despite further upgrades (including electrification of the entire Tokaido route by November 1956) it was clear the present railway could not sustain this sudden increase in demand especially as the region was experiencing a huge revival in fortunes and more people were living in the area whilst new industries and services were being established near or along the route of the existing railway.
Series 151 ‘Kodama’ express. Source: Imgur
In 1950 ‘Shonans’ (Series 80 EMUs) were introduced on the Tokaido Line. These were 16 car trains intended for long distance express services and these were designed by Hideo Shima. These consisted of an advanced electric traction system and also bogies with additional stability to provide for a smoother ride. Despite teething problems these Shonans were soon noted for their excellent speeds. By 1956 these were being used on express services between Tokyo and Nagoya – a distance of 366km. The problem with these was they were not seen as prestigious as the current locomotive hauled expresses.
From their experience of the Series 80, Japanese National railways sought an ever faster and more luxurious electric multiple unit – the famous Kodama expresses (Series 151.) These were introduced in late 1958 on the Tokaido Line and in due course the fastest of these were able to run from Tokyo to Osaka in just 6 hours 30 minutes.
In the midst of all these improvements on Japan’s premier narrow gauge line, it was Shinji Sogō, JNR’s fourth president, who fought to ensure greater modernisation of the railways which had also included the Tokaido’s electrification and more powerful and faster steam locomotives. He became president of Japanese National Railways in 1955 and the scene was thus set for the world’s first ever high speed railway.
Original plans for the New Tokaido line 1955. Tokyo at extreme right. Osaka centre, and Shimonoseki at left. Source: Coqtez Blog
Sogō was proud of the railways and the valuable work they performed, but he knew this alone was not enough if the railways were to survive. In his opinion a new railway had to be built. It wouldn’t be a competitor but rather strongly complementary to the older railways. The plans for the New Tokaido Line were submitted in 1955. Sogō strongly believed the railways, with the right determination and approach, could compete with both cars and planes, and the New Tokaido Line was part of that plan. Work immediately was put underway to plan the new railway.
Shinji Sogō performed a major ceremony at the entrance to the New Tanna tunnel in 1959.
The New Tanna ceremony marked commencement of the actual construction work to build what would be the world’s first ever high speed railway. By the time construction had started the focus was upon the Tokyo – Osaka section as a dedicated high speed route. The section from Osaka westwards, including Shimonoseki, would be deferred and this later became the San’yō Shinkansen – which was of course extended to Hakata.
The New Tanna tunnel again – during the ceremony by JNR chairman Shinji Sogō to launch construction of the high speed railway. 20th April 1959. Source: Coqtez Blog
The New Tanna tunnel, at 7958 m, would be the longest on the new line.
The cover of JNR’s April 1958 report for the new line between Tokyo and Osaka – ‘Construction of the Tokaido Wide Gauge Shinkansen.’ Source: Kiki Life
It is probably assumed by most the Shinkansen was built without any opposition. In fact there was considerable opposition to it. Around 50,000 households, a huge number in those days, were evicted to make way for the new line. There was a number of attempts to sabotage the works and attempts to cause derailments. As a result the government urgently passed new laws carrying very severe penalties for anyone trying to interfere with the new line.
Opposition movement group against the Shinkansen. Source: Moro Miya Station
Despite the very daunting task ahead in building a new line and the opposition involved, Sogō began to assemble a team of top experts. One of these was Hideo Shima who we have read about earlier. He had recently left the railways after achieving many changes including the introduction of of the Shonan and Kodama express multiple units. Sogō urged Shima back into the fold and it was Shima who helped to design the Shinkansen’s high speed electric multiple units.
To recap, Shima had originally begun his work on the railways by helping to design some of the most powerful steam locomotives for the narrow gauge, a most impressive work because these early efforts helped to put the Japanese railways back on track.
The Class C62’s of which Shima had a hand in designing, were extremely powerful and achieved excellent transit times on the Tokaido main line. Source: Trans World Express
One of the greater successes of Shima’s earlier work was the Class C62 locomotives which mainly hauled the Tsubame expresses between Tokyo and Osaka. The journey between the two cities (a distance of just under 600 km or 370 miles) was ultimately achieved in just 7 hours 30 minutes with the C62s. One of these broke the world record for narrow gauge steam with a speed of 129kmh/80mph.
However to progress even further, Shima had of course realised simply replacing the splendid steam locomotives with diesels or electric locomotives merely wasn’t enough due to the unique conditions of the Japanese railways. Hence the Shonans and Kodamas. Electric multiple units had so far been seen as a concept useful only for the slow and very busy urban sections of railway but Shima changed all that.
Early representation of the new high speed multiple unit which would be known as the ‘Super Dream Express.’
Other aspects of the new high speed trains needed new insight too, and for that reason Sogō enlisted the help of Tadanao Miki, an aviation expert – whose work had included design of the dreaded kamikaze planes widely used during world war two – something he rued in later life. Nevertheless it is important to remember he had a very clever mind and that is why he was brought in to handle the new high speed trains’ design – mainly to resolve the issues of aerodynamics – and no surprise the end product was a train that sort of looked like a plane!
One other aviation expert was brought in and this was Tadashi Matsudaira, an accomplished aircraft engineer. One of his specialities was the role of vibrations in the structure of an aeroplane. Vibrations could compromise the integrity of an aircraft’s structure. Matsudaira was a pioneer in this field, which lead to many improvements in aircraft design.
It is both Miki and Matsudaira who therefore came up with the advanced engineering requirements that would be needed to build the Super Dream Express and much of this work was a next level advancement of their previous aviation expertise.
Matsudaira had the job of trying to find ways of providing a stable means of keeping high speed trains on the track and how the trains themselves reacted to the tracks. He had originally became involved in the railways by way of being asked to investigate an accident that occurred during July 1947, which the railway seemed to have no clue why it had happened.
From top clockwise: The dedicated team which consisted of Shinji Sogō, Hideo Shima, Tadashi Matsudaira and Tadanao Miki. Source: Armchair Japanophile
Matsudaira examined the wreckage from that 1947 accident. He critically analysed the damaged track. He soon discovered there was a snake like effect where one bogie starts becoming unstable, which causes a chain reaction along the train as each of its bogies too becomes unstable. What it meant was under those circumstances eventually the track beneath the train failed completely and derailment occurred.
He recognised the symptoms. It occurred in planes too. The faster a train or a plane went the more the whole thing oscillated. A plane could break up in the air because of this, whilst on a train the wheels and bogies oscillated, in turn oscillating the carriages and derailments became likely. The phenomenon is what we all know in the railway world as ‘hunting.’
Here’s a video showing some examples of these tests on the narrow gauge – these experiments eventually contributed towards the stability which is most exemplary on the Shinkansen’s trains.
Tadashi Matsudaira with a test model EMU car which was used to test the stability of bogies at high speeds.
The French themselves later found this problem themselves. Their experiments to develop a high speed train in the mid-fifties led to the record runs of 331kmh/206mph in March 1955 – which resulted in the track becoming extremely distorted and rendered practically useless – and they thought they were the first to discover this. Eventually the problem was too recognised as the aforementioned ‘hunting’ – yet this was something Matsudaira had been working on for nearly a decade. The Japanese were very ahead of the French in terms of developing high speed rail vehicles that could stay on the track. At the time of the French high speed trials Matsudaira’s work was completely unknown to Europe.
On May 30th 1957 a lecture was held in Tokyo with the title ‘Super Dream Express Train – possible 3 hours between Tokyo and Osaka’ and detailed the possibilities of achieving such a high speed line – as long as it was ‘wide gauge.’ That year things began to speed up and the ball rolled. By 1959 the basic concept for a new high speed railway had been agreed and the Japanese government authorised the project.
Despite this authorisation, work had to continue to develop extremely stable high speed trains. This was done in collaboration with Hideo Shima and experiments were conducted with high speed trips on the narrow gauge railways before moving onto the Shinkansen. These included a modified Kodama Express 151 Series EMU in 1959 (picture below) which achieved 163kmh/101mph, assisted by the use of specialised bogies.
The Kodama express train on its way to break the record for high speeds on the narrow gauge. 31st July 1959. This can be seen on You Tube.
With that particular experiment concluded it was soon known the new high speed railway would be able to achieve speeds of 200kmh or more. It meant timings between Tokyo and Osaka would no doubt be in the region of around three hours – as had been envisaged just two years earlier.
The route of the new railway would generally follow the classic Tokaido Line for it was meant to be a complement to that earlier line rather than being a completely new route. This meant passengers would be able to use the new line and then switch to a classic train for the remainder of their journey if necessary. But before that could happen the line had to be built – and that meant one thing – money!
Map I created showing how the New Tokaido Line would largely shadow the classic route. The 12 original Shinkansen stops are shown. The section from Kozu to Numazu via Gotemba was the original Tokaido route before it was diverted along the Pacific coast route via Odawara and Atami.
Sogō clearly had pulled off agreement to getting his high speed railway built. From 1959 onward, marked by the New Tanna tunnel ceremony, things were certainly underway. His team were working on how the line’s trains and stations would look and the rest of it. It was envisaged the line would be ready for the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. The one big stumbling block was of course finance. Japan National Railways simply couldn’t afford it. How would Sogō get round this….?
Continued in Part Two of Introducing The New Tokaido Line