Ro­mance of rail on speed

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - THE ICE FLOE TEST - Nel­lie Blun­dell

IF there’s a ro­mance to rail, it mostly be­longs to by­gone days. Aris­to­crats, flap­pers and spies now fly first class, and there’s no vel­vet up­hol­stery or tin­kle of crys­tal on china on to­day’s in­ter­state ser­vices.

Now it’s all air and space. Who can deny there’s a buzz in taxi­ing down the run­way, soar­ing into the sun­set, not to men­tion the idea of dodg­ing me­te­ors as you shoot for the moon? But when I’m fly­ing there’s a guilty tickle in the back of my brain that says maybe I should choose an­other way of get­ting around. All that car­bon diox­ide bil­low­ing in my wake as I tra­verse the globe makes me sweat; I can feel the mer­cury ris­ing be­fore I’ve taken my com­pres­sion socks from their plas­tic wrap­per.

In Ja­pan, I de­cide to swap the air for the ground and travel by train. Surely, if there’s one rail jour­ney that de­liv­ers the thrill of the fu­ture rather than the rick­ety nos­tal­gia of the past, it’s a ride on the su­per­fast, su­per-sexy shinkansen , bet­ter known as the bul­let train.

I’m on the way from Tokyo to Nagano to learn how to ski and, thanks to the in­fra­struc­ture and links that were needed for the 1998 Win­ter Olympics there, a shinkansen goes di­rect. It’s been named the Asama ser­vice for the moun­tain of that name it passes en route.

Th­ese aren’t called bul­let trains for noth­ing: in test runs they’ve hit 443 km/h. And though the Asama ser­vice reaches just 260km/h, it’s faster than any train I’ve taken.

My Ja­panese host tells me the ser­vice takes 79 min­utes. That’s 79 min­utes ex­actly. Not 80 min­utes or ‘‘ roughly an hour and a half’’, but 79 min­utes on the nose.

At Tokyo Sta­tion we wait be­tween neatly painted lines and soon enough the sleek, sil­ver train slides noise­lessly along­side the plat­form, red rac­ing stripes down its sides. In 1.75 min­utes, the car­riages are cleaned and ti­died for our trip and we’re free to board.

I’m look­ing for­ward to get­ting ac­quainted with speed and won­der if there will be seat belts, or a sort of rocket-style har­ness? But when I en­ter the car­riage there are just big, soft, spa­cious seats and su­per clean sur­faces I imag­ine you could eat your din­ner off. And that in­cludes the toi­lets.

Be­tween the car­riages there are tele­phones and vend­ing ma­chines and cute wait­resses in pinafores push­ing trol­leys piled with beer, whisky and boxes of de­li­cious noo­dles and snacks.

We pull out of the sta­tion and (slowly) pass through Tokyo’s day­time neon and high­rise be­fore pick­ing up speed as Mt Fuji waves us off on the left. We must be trav­el­ling at 260km/h, but it doesn’t feel fast at all. It’s not as if your face gets stretched back around your teeth, which is a shame be­cause I was look­ing for­ward to that. It doesn’t no­tice­ably tilt ei­ther. In fact it feels more like be­ing in a plane than a train. There are no chug-chug noises or the rhyth­mic, rock­ing mo­tion of a train; there is a sense of move­ment but it’s as smooth as if we are be­ing car­ried on air.

While most pas­sen­gers doze, I check out the men’s pages in the in-jour­ney re­tail cat­a­logue, dis­cov­er­ing gir­dles, hair dye, and sev­eral heights of shoe lift. And be­fore I know it, 78 min­utes have passed, leav­ing 60 sec­onds to pre­pare for land­ing.

It’s no trip to the moon, but the shinkansen does re­store a lit­tle shine to the tar­nished glam­our of rail, and per­haps best of all, can be en­joyed with­out car­bon foot­print guilt.

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