Fifty years ago this October, a year after Dr Beeching’s first report had sounded the death knell for much of Britain’s railway system, a revolution in train travel was taking place on the far side of the world.
As visitors flocked to Japan for the Olympic Games (held in October to avoid the summer heat), Japan’s first Shinkansen, or bullet train, slid out of Tokyo station and gathered speeds of up to 130mph en route for Osaka, heralding a new age of high-speed rail.
The Japanese were well ahead of the game. It was 13 years before Italy followed suit, then France with the TGV. But although high-speed trains now glide across hills and plains from Spain to China, Japan’s futuristic-looking bullet train retains an aura that our grime-caked intercity expresses can never capture.
Just as we used to stop and stare in wonder when Concorde soared overhead, the bullet train creates a frisson of excitement as it glides into a station – invariably bang on time. And with its long, white tapered nose, sleek lines, airline-style windows and current speeds of up to 169mph, the Shinkansen fleet (which translates as “new trunk line”) has more than a touch of Concorde glamour.
Unlike Concorde, the trains have an almost unblemished safety record. Despite Japan’s vulnerability to typhoons and earthquakes, not one of the 10 billion passengers who have used the service since its launch has died as a result of a derailment or collision.
This was a comforting statistic, I thought, as I prepared for a rail tour around central and western Honshu earlier this year, with typhoon warnings flashing across TV screens. Armed with a Japan Rail pass, I’d planned a tour of central and western Honshu, travelling from Tokyo to Kyoto on a combination of bullet train and local rail services.
The capital is a great place to get the measure of Japan. The Edo Tokyo museum is the best possible introduction to the country’s extraordinary history, the Meiji Jingu shrine and Sensoji Temple to its spiritual life, while the tea ceremony at Hamarikyu garden, amid the bridges, tidal pools, ducks and cropped pines, is a sliver of old Japan amid the skyscrapers.