Japan Launches 'Hayabusa' Bullet Train
Japan's latest bullet train, the thin-nosed "Hayabusa" or Falcon, made its 300 kilometre per hour (186 mph) debut, boasting a luxury carriage modelled on airline business class.
Japan has built up a network of cutting-edge Shinkansen train lines since the 1960s that criss-cross the island nation and now hopes to sell the infrastructure technology abroad, including to the United States.
The latest ultra-fast tech-marvel will make two trips a day from Tokyo to Aomori, a scenic rural backwater on the northern tip of the main Honshu island that has until now been off Japan's bullet train map. It will also make one more trip a day to Sendai, located between Tokyo and Aomori.
Mutsutake Otsuka, chairman of East Japan Railway Co. (JR East), stressed the engineering sophistication of the new ride.
"To the best of our ability, we will strive to improve Hayabusa's passenger comfort, safety and environmental friendliness, not just its speed," he told hundreds of people who came to Tokyo station to see the futuristic train.
The mood at the launch was dampened slightly by a seven minute delay to the first service after a passenger fell from the platform at Tokyo station, where more than 1,000 train hobbyists rushed to take pictures.
The train was not moving at the time, and the man climbed back up to the platform unaided.
The green-and-silver E5 series Hayabusa travels at up to 300 kilometres per hour to make the 675 kilometre trip to Aomori in three hours and 10 minutes. From next year, it will push its top speed to 320 kilometres per hour to become Japan's fastest train.
Passengers will glide quietly along the straight stretches and tunnels that cut through Japan's mountainous countryside, said JR East, which has heavily promoted the launch of the new service.
Those willing to pay 26,360 yen ($320) for a one-way trip can enjoy the comfort of a 'GranClass' car, where a cabin attendant will serve them drinks and food in their deeply reclining leather seats on thick woollen carpets.
To promote the service, the train company has also heavily advertised Aomori as a tourist destination, praising its landscape, seafood and winter snow.
Japan's ultra-fast, frequent and punctual bullet trains have made them the preferred choice for many travellers, rather than flying or road travel, ever since the first Shinkansen was launched in time for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
But as Japan, and its railway companies, struggle with a fast-greying and shrinking population and falling domestic demand, the government and industry are aggressively seeking to promote the bullet trains abroad.
Japan has in the past sold Shinkansen technology to Taiwan and hopes to capture other overseas markets, such as Brazil and Vietnam, but faces stiff competition from train manufacturers in China, France and Germany.
The biggest prize is a future high-speed US rail network that President Barack Obama has promoted, to be backed by 13 billion dollars in public funding.
California's then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was treated to an early test ride on the Hayabusa when he visited Japan in September.
Japan says its trains boast a strong safety record: despite running in an earthquake-prone country, no passenger has ever died due to a Shinkansen derailment or collision -- although people have committed suicide by jumping in front of the trains.
Japan has also been developing a magnetic levitation or maglev train that, its operator says, reached a world record speed of 581 kilometres per hour in 2003 on a test track near Mount Fuji in Tsuru, west of Tokyo.
The plan is to launch maglev services between Tokyo and the central city of Nagoya by 2027. By 2045 they are expected to link Tokyo with the main western city of Osaka in just one hour and seven minutes, compared with the current two hours 25.