Today, superb planning takes us on a fast train
trip. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
We sail along at 110 miles
an hour -- sometimes accelerating to 150. Heavy
industry, rice paddies, and blue tile roofs flicker
by as we sweep from Kyoto to Tokyo. We're in the
Shinkansen express train -- the "Bullet Train." The
seats are spacious armchairs. A stewardess offers
us our choice of coffee or green tea.
We've been seeing Zen Bhuddist shrines in Kyoto --
serene and austere. Just outside, we could've
bought holographic postcards of the temples. That
kind of high-tech tourist glitz speaks volumes
about the changes we see everywhere.
Take these Shinkansen trains. They've changed
transportation. The first leg of the system was
finished way back in 1964. It went from Tokyo to
Osaka. Since then the system has reached every
major city in Japan and carried 3 billion
passengers without an accident. The company
brochure is obsessive on safety measures. Some of
them are unexpected.
For example, trains have to take in a lot of
recirculating air. During a snowstorm, a train
moving over a hundred miles an hour hauls in a lot
of snow. The Shinkansen trains have to carry huge
separator systems to keep snow out.
Here's an even stranger one: Japan is earthquake
country. Everything has to be built with that in
mind. Even the great hundred-ton Kamakura Bhudda
sits on shock absorbers, and it's over 700 years
old. But how can an earthquake affect a train? The
answer changes when you move with the speed of an
airplane. Tracks even modestly dislocated by
tremors would spell disaster.
So a network of seismographs reads earthquake
information and relays it by satelite to the train.
There are no communications lines to be cut by
earthquakes. There's more: Big parts of the line
run through tunnels. That way, grades are kept
under two percent. Tracks have to bend very gently.
A typical radius of curvature is two and a half
miles or more.
Now the train slows into Tokyo station. We dismount
in a swirl of people and disappear into the Tokyo
subway system. Japan has picked her technological
targets and aimed well. She builds exceptional cars
and trains, but not airplanes. She makes superb
audio systems, but we still lead in computers.
What the Shinkansen system represents is long-term
thinking. Each leg has taken five to eleven years
to build. Some of these trains are already a
quarter of a century old and still unmatched in
America. What was Japan's secret? It was to invest
in something that could not and did not turn a
profit until it had been running for some time. And
that's what we must learn to do.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Information about the Shinkansen system came largely
from a West Japan Railway Company brochure.
Readers interested in the comments on planning
Dertouzos, M.L., Lester, R.K., and Solow, R.M.,
Made in America: Regaining the Productive
Edge. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1989.
Made in Japan, Akio Morita and Sony.
(with E.M. Reingold & M. Shimomura) New York:
Penguin Books, a Signet Book, 1988.
For more on the Shinkansen Train,
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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