When George Osborne came to the National Railway Museum earlier this month to launch the National Infrastructure Commission he gave his speech in front of KF No.7 built for export to China and only a couple of steps away from the only ‘Shinkansen’ outside of Japan. Once again the National Railway Museum provided potent symbols for a ‘big idea’.
It is a shame that the cameras did not sweep round to see the shiny white of the Shinkansen, a world-beating train has been at the National Railway Museum for over a decade. The Shinkansen is an example of the kind of step change in planning and infrastructure investment that Mr Osborne is aiming for. For over 60 years the Japanese bullet train’ has been a byword for efficient, fast, safe and profitable inter-city travel, as well as being the transport backbone of the most populated part of Japan. Inter-connectivity and economic growth in one shiny white design icon.
It is at this point that worlds collide if you look into the history of Japan’s most famous train, for the gestation of the first ‘Shinkansen’ was anything but straightforward. When first talked about there were plenty of influential people in Japan who argued that what was needed was an enhancement of existing routes rather than a costly gamble with a new route. They also did not like the idea of a different electrification system and worst of all a track gauge wider than the normal Japanese gauge of 3’6″.
Shinji Sogo, President of Japanese National Railways (1955-1963) saw the scheme as an ‘improvement’ to the railway links between Tokyo and Osaka, similar to Claire Perry, under-secretary of State for Transport who recently opined that ‘it would have been better to have called HS2 – ‘High Capacity 2’.
Shinji Sogo had worked in Manchuria before the Second World War where continent’s fastest train ran – the ‘Asia Express’ ( introduced in 1934). This featured a railway re-gauged from the Japanese ‘standard’ of 3′ 6″ to the international ‘standard’ gauge of 4’8 1/2″. The trains were streamlined and steam hauled but the developers knew that the way forward was to electrify (as the British had in parts of India).
When Sogo got to head JNR his Chief Engineer was Hideo Shima, the other ‘father’ of the Shinkansen. He took the idea of a new railway to drive economic development to the World Bank and secured a giant investment as a result, (thereby also ensuring the Japanese government could not curtail the project). This was at a time when railways worldwide were struggling to remain relevant in developed economies – the motorway was the symbol of the future. Britain in 1964 was right in the middle of the motorway building programme, with protests against railway closures as a result of the ‘Beeching Axe’ ignored by planners.
There is at least one further link between 1960’s Japan and Britain in the 21st century. The original developers of the Shinkansen ensured that it was there for the opening of the Tokyo Olympics. Those developing Britain’s High Speed One (to London ‘St Pancras International’) had a similar objective after plans for HS1 influenced the bid for the ‘London 2012’ Olympics. Today Ashford promotes itself as ‘Best placed in Britain’ or the ‘UK’s International Town’ whilst Stratford’s re-development continues apace.
Rail in Japan is a fascinating mixture of very hi-tech Shinkansen trains running at up to 200 mph and low-tech (and not so low tech) local trains nearly all electric powered, as well as extensive suburban networks and a commitment to build an ultra-high speed inter-city Maglev.
The original Shinkansen line is the busiest high speed line in the world; the network as a whole has had over 10 billion passengers since it opened. Subsequent network development took the Shinkansen (literally a ‘new trunk line’) to places where they could help spread economic growth and development as Japan worked on how to make sure the whole country benefitted.
A similar plan is unfolding in the UK now with the cross party infrastructure commission, HS2, and local transport developments from ‘Tramtrains’ to electrification. Local authorities are on board to with the examples of Ashford and Stratford to note. For rail plans go from ‘the best high speed line in the world’ to local improvements long talked of, now being looked at seriously.
Who knows, we may eventually see a transport network like Japan’s – high speed inter-city trains, and local railways electrified. As to the latter, well Windermere is going to happen soon, why not eventually Hawick, Aberystwyth, Scarborough or even Tavistock?
Find out more about the National Infrastructure Commission here.