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Originally published Friday, March 27, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Japan blurs line between bullet and train

By 2025, a network of bullet trains connecting major cities is to feature magnetically levitated, or maglev, linear motor trains running at speeds of more than 310 mph.

Los Angeles Times

NAGOYA, Japan — This is a nation addicted to speed.

And to ride Japan's super Shinkansen, or bullet train, is to zip into the future at speeds reaching 186 mph.

From Nagoya to Tokyo, the scenery whizzes past in a dizzying blur as the sleek engine with its bulletlike nose floats the cars along elevated tracks — without the clickety-clack of the lumbering U.S. trains that make you feel as though you're chugging along like cattle to market.

These days, Californians dream of a future with high-speed elevated rails that would link Southern California and Las Vegas in less than two hours, or L.A. and San Francisco in slightly more than 2 ½.

Japan, meanwhile, soon will have a class of trains that could make the trip in less than half that time.

This is a nation where it's not nearly enough that the trains run on time — they must break land records. And even that's not enough.

By 2025, a network of bullet trains connecting major cities is to feature magnetically levitated, or maglev, linear motor trains running at speeds of more than 310 mph.

Developed for use during the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, the Shinkansen trains were the brainchild of Hideo Shima, a government engineer who died a decade ago at 96. Over the years, the trains have signaled Japanese prosperity, a gauge of just how far this technology-crazed culture has come and where it's headed.

Designed to traverse Japan's mountainous terrain, the trains use tunnels and viaducts to go through and over obstacles rather than around them. They travel on elevated tracks without road crossings and apart from conventional rail. An automated control system eliminates the need for signals.

Officials boast that the trains on average are less than half a minute late each year, which includes delays caused by earthquakes, typhoons, snow and heavy rain. During the line's 45-year history and transport of 7 billion passengers, there have been no deaths from derailment or collisions.

A new E-5 series of trains scheduled to take to the rails in 2011 promises speeds of nearly 200 mph, improved suspensions and a car-body tilting system to make the ride more comfortable around curves. Power-reclining shell seats in first class will provide what engineers call a "peaceful and soothing time during your travels."

Amtrak, eat your heart out.

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But Japan isn't stopping there.

The trains planned for 2025 will reduce travel time between Tokyo and Nagoya to 40 minutes from about 90 minutes. At that speed, commuters could go from Los Angeles to the San Francisco Bay Area in slightly more than an hour. Rail officials say as many as 200,000 passengers could use the line daily.

Still, the Shinkansen isn't perfect.

The trains often cause a rail version of a sonic boom as they emerge from tunnels. That's because they enter so rapidly that they create a bubble of air pressure that is pushed along until they emerge.

The trains remain in stations for only two minutes — not a moment more or less — before easing out and quickly gaining speed. By the time they reach top velocity, the world has begun to change.

There's no tooth-jarring shudder as when jets lumber down the runway before takeoff. This ride is smooth. The turns are gentle, peaceful, even serene, though a passenger is awakened at times by the boom of a train passing by or exiting a tunnel.

For the most part, you don't realize you're traveling faster than almost any other man-made land vehicle until you look out the window and see scenery passing by so fuzzily that you think you've lost your glasses.

For most of the ride you settle into your seat, purchase a beer or coffee from the passing snack cart and realize again that you're not in America anymore.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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