How Japanese Trains Used Technology to Ensure Punctuality, Safety, and Zero Cancellation?

Since 1964, the Japanese high-speed railway Shinkansen has been known for three things: safety, reliability, and punctuality. Its reputation remains untouched to this day. On the other side, many countries still struggle with providing these qualities within their railway networks.
Buckle down as we go in-depth into Japanese train’s hardware, software and humanware.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

japanese railways

Illustration: Milica Mijajlovic

How is the punctuality of the Shinkansen achieved? 

Let’s start by listing three fascinating facts: 

  1. The average time of Japanese trains delay is one minute per year;
  2. In 2016, the annual average delay time was only 24 seconds;
  3. For 20 years, the average delay of the most popular line, the Tokaido Shinkansen, has been less than a minute. 

Let that settle. 

When Shinkansen first opened in 1964, it connected Tokyo and Osaka, at a distance of 600 kilometers and a speed of 210km/h. This speed is impressive even today for many countries; needless to say what a revolutionary turn point it was back in the day. Thanks to this high-speed railway, travel time between the two cities halved, lasting only about three hours. 

Half a century later, Shinkansen has of course expanded to other areas of Japan, with a total line length of 2,830 km. Moreover, the maximum speed is up to 320 km/h, but there’s an interest in increasing it even more. 

In addition, as a part of their charm, they give each line a unique name, the most popular ones being Tokaido, Sanyo, Akita, and many more. 

Sure, we’ve all heard about how train operators in Japan take delays extremely seriously, and that’s why they’ve been role models worldwide. Needless to remind you, in Japan, if a train is more than a minute late, it’s considered to be delayed.  

But little do we know how its punctuality is achieved and what technology lies behind it. 

According to N. Tomii from the Chiba Institute of Technology in Japan, these factors certainly contributed to the flawless railway system: 

  1. Dedicated lines, all of which are newly constructed, are crucial in keeping punctuality. 
  2. Shinkansen’s punctuality is supported by hardware, software and humanware, with the latter being crucial for preventing delays. 
  3. Since Shinkansen started operating, no passenger was ever injured or killed. What contributed to this are special laws for Shinkansen, regarding construction and operation. For example, along all lines, high fences prevent the public from approaching and keep them away from level crossings. 
  4. It was designed with a brand-new philosophy compared to conventional railway lines – if something seems too complicated, it won’t be implemented, under the presumption that it will cause an operational error due to dense traffic. 
  5. Train schedules are simpler than conventional ones; there are no freight or night trains. 

It’s also important to emphasize that Shinkansen is irreplaceable when it comes to in-country travel, ‘stealing’ passengers from airplane companies. In fact, its market share is 60% between Tokyo and Akita, and 81% between Tokyo and Osaka. 

In other words, we can say that Shinkansen identified crucial travel points and connected them with high-quality, high-speed service, even cheaper than the existing (airplane) one. 

Not only that, but it reached out to disconnected parts of the country and included them in the traffic system, therefore expanding its customer base. 

Shinkansen compared to conventional railway lines   

According to the same scholar, there are some disadvantages to the network, leaving space for improvement. For example, by his words, On some Shinkansen lines, trains go directly through conventional railway lines and the Shinkansen is easily influenced by the disruption of these lines. 

Why is this a problem? 

For starters, the gauge is standard (1435mm), whereas that of conventional railway lines is narrow (1067mm). So, for example, in some parts, lines are equipped with three rails so that both trains can run – but the Shinkansen special laws are not applied, which affects the overall performance. 

That’s why, for example, the average delay time for Tohoku and Joetsu Shinkansen is greater, since they’re influenced by delays of conventional railway lines. More precisely, on these lines, other trains are also operating, including freight ones. Since trains are coupled and decoupled at the junction stations, the delay time is easily propagated to all Shinkansens that share a track in some part. 

There’s another important difference when comparing the two. 

In many countries, there are cases of people committing suicide on railway lines, along with trains colliding with cars. In Japan, this is also common for conventional railway lines, whereas Shinkansen has completely eliminated this inconvenience. 

And finally, there’s a difference in driver’s licenses, meaning that a driver of conventional railway lines isn’t permitted to drive the Shinkansen. The other way around is possible. 

Are there any disadvantages to Shinkansen? 

Since it’s such a huge system, with high standards, every once in a while, a certain defect appears. This mostly refers to rescheduling – the traffic is heavily dense so, if one train is delayed, the others need to be promptly rescheduled as well. 

And that’s sometimes difficult to achieve. Because of the long distances, seat reservations, and providing enough time for cleaning inside trains – the cancellation of trains, or even a partial cancellation, is never done in the Shinkansen. That’s another difference when compared to conventional railway lines, which are known to partially cancel trains in order to absorb delays. 

However, there is another one, probably even more important, disadvantage. 

Namely, Shinkansen relies heavily on computer systems for route control (so-called PRC: Programmed Route Control system). Although it preserves punctuality, it can cause serious consequences if the system shuts down. 

In other words, if there’s heavy reliance on PRC, dispatchers won’t be as skilled in the manual operation of signals

Additionally, some have criticized Shinkansen for its simple usage of facilities, under the premise that a more complicated one could maximize the performance of the facilities. So, in order to defend its philosophy, Shinkansen had to put a lot of thought into increasing the reliability of the hardware. 

This is how they ensured it: 

  • As much training as possible: Even though route settings are done under PRC automatically, there’s training in manual route settings in case the system shuts down, especially during natural disasters or heavy weather. Even if it never happens, the training is done on a continuous basis. 
  • As much effort as possible: They have replaced traditional techniques of, for example, removing snow from trails (back in the day, it was done by hitting the train set with a wooden stick, which required a lot of labor), by introducing new equipment that works under high pressure. Moreover, they installed sprinklers to make the snow wet and a monitoring system to help them decide when to turn on the sprinklers. 

The latter one had an amazing result – for over 15 years, no train was canceled due to heavy snow.  

A journalist by day and a podcaster by night. She's not writing to impress but to be understood.