HIDEO SHIMA The Bullet Train
ENGLISHMEN had invented modern railways, but it was the Japanese that brought them near to perfection. True, there are now some classy railways in Europe, but Hideo Shima’s shinkansen, the bullet train, still retains the pride of the pioneer. People go to Japan simply to ride in the train, to admire it for its marvellous reliability, and of course its speed.
How fast can an ordinary sort of person travel without getting alarmed? In 1830 George Stephenson’s “Rocket” managed 36 miles per hour, and most people thought that quite fast enough.
When Shima bent his mind to constructing a fast line between Tokyo and the great industrial city of Osaka, the speed of express trains in Europe had crept up in reassuring stages to about 90mph. It was thought that 100mph or so would be the limit for comfort. Shima aimed for much more.
Shima had joined the Ministry of Railways (Japanese Government Railways) in 1925, where, as a rollingstock engineer, he designed steam locomotives. Using new techniques to balance the driving wheels and new valve gear designs, he helped design Japan’s first 3cylinder locomotive - the Class C53, which was based on the Class C52 imported from the United States.
Shima also participated in the design and fabrication of a standard vehicle which was mass-produced when World War II broke out. This experience helped in the rapid growth of the Japanese car industry after the war.
The Hachiko Line derailment in 1947 was a turning point in his career. JGR used the opportunity to obtain permission from SCAP to modify all wooden passenger cars (about 3,000 were in use then) to a steel construction within a few years.
Shima was also involved in the design and development of the Class C62 and Class D62 steam locomotives for express passenger trains and heavy-duty freight trains, respectively. It was during these years that he came up with an innovation that would later be employed in the bullet trains—the use of trains driven by electric motors in the individual rail cars, rather than by an engine at the front (“distributed-power multiple-unit control systems”).
As Shima’s career progressed, he became the head of the national railway’s rolling stock department in 1948. But, after the establishment of Japanese National Railways in 1949, a train fire at a station in Yokohama that killed more than 100 people in 1951 led him to resign in the Japanese tradition of taking responsibility. He worked briefly for Sumitomo Metal Industries, but was asked by Shinji Sogo, the president of JNR, to come back and oversee the building of the first Shinkansen line, in 1955.
In addition to its innovative propulsion system, the shinkansen also introduced features like air suspension and air-conditioning. Shima’s team designed the sleek cone-shaped front from which the bullet train got its name. The cost of the first Shinkansen line also cost Shima his job.The building of the first line, which needed 3,000 bridges and 67 tunnels to allow a clear and largely straight path, led to such huge cost overruns that he resigned in 1963, along with the president, Shinji Sogo, who had backed Shima’s ideas, even though the line proved to be popular and well-used.