High Speed Rail in Japan: Lessons from Shinkansen

The San Francisco Chronicle has an useful article on the lessons from Japan’s high-speed rail system called the Shinkansen. Japan now has five lines connecting this very urban and dense nation.

While the article’s intent is clearly to promote high-speed rail by casting the story in the context of long-term benefits, the reportering is balanced enough to recognize the differences between Japan and the U.S.

A couple of notable items:

  • Three private companies operate the high-speed rail lines over 1,400 miles (and soon to be 1,800 miles);
  • The average delay is less than 1 minute;
  • Commuters account for 5 percent of riders;
  • Japan’s high speed rail system connects very dense employment centers (among the most dense in the world);
  • The first high-speed rail line was established in 1964 just prior to the Tokyo olympics and well before incomes rose to developed nation status;
  • Japan, like most less developed but compact nations, had a rail culture in place before the high-speed rail service was established.

The primary error the article makes is that somehow the U.S. had a rail culture before automobiles emerged. In fact, transit likely never accounted for more than 30 percent of passenger miles and our geographically dispersed cities made fixed route transit difficult to remain competitive with the flexibility of the automobile as incomes rose. The choice of the automobile was a rational choice, not a cultural bias.