Romance of rail on speed
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.