Japan's bullet train: A case of technology transfer

M Rokonuzzaman | Published: June 11, 2018 21:40:15 | Updated: June 13, 2018 22:04:18

Bangladesh is contemplating to introduce high-speed train service  between Dhaka and Chittagong.  The train with 'Duck-bill' nose, designed to reduce the piston effect as the trains enter tunnels, is one of Japan's technological marvels. In 1964, Japan introduced the new mode of high-speed transportation: Shinkansen. In English, colloquially it's known as the bullet train, a network of high-speed railway lines in Japan. Since 1964, Japan's Shinkansens have carried more than 10 billion passengers with impressive track record of safety, punctuality, and comfort. During this half century, no major accidents have occurred. The trains are 100 per cent on time as their tagline claims. Only in 1997, an average delay of 18 seconds was recorded. Inside this high-speed train, both vibration and noise are extremely low.

Shinkansen has been the peacetime opportunity for Japan to push the technological envelope. With the success of the Shinkansen, Japan gained high-end knowledge to keep pushing the industrial strength of modern Japan. With time, Shinkansen become a symbol of confidence among the Japanese, leading to the precious virtue: Japan Can Do.

The train was initially built to connect distant Japanese regions with Tokyo, the capital, in order to aid economic growth and development. Beyond long-distance travel, it is now also used as a commuter rail network. After starting with the T?kaid? Shinkansen (615.4 kilometres) in 1964, the network has expanded, currently consisting of 2,764.6 kilometres of lines with speeds of 240-320 km/h (150-200 mph). The maximum operating speed is 320 km/h (200 mph). With test runs reaching 443 km/h (275 mph) for conventional rail in 1996, Japan is working on new higher speed Shinkansen. The world record of 603 km/h (375 mph) for maglev trains was achieved in April 2015.

The initial concept of high-speed train in Japan was conceived in 1939. Following the end of World War II, high-speed rail was forgotten for several years while traffic of passengers and freight steadily increased. Moreover, in the 1950s, the Japanese national attitude was that railways would soon be outdated and replaced by air travel and highways as in USA and many countries in Europe. During this period, Japan's major engineering capabilities around defence were also dismantled. For example, during the occupation of Japan after the end of World War II, all of Japan's aerospace industry was demolished, designs destroyed and plants converted to other uses. As a result, Kawasaki and other major engineering firms started losing vital capability to contribute to the technological development and construction of conceived high-speed trains.

Crippled both financially and technologically, Japan could have opted to either importing high-speed rail technology from Europe or follow American model: building air transport network and highways. But Japan carefully observed the unique population distribution pattern. Unlike Europe and USA, most of Japan's population lives in a surprisingly small number of places, and a high-speed train is an elegant solution for shuttling workers from one dense city to another. To meet these vital objectives, Japan took the smart decision of developing an array of technologies to realise the dream project, Shinkansen. While Americans were in the race of sending man on the moon to show the world what USA can do, Japan was working on the ground building the bullet train. Japan's bullet train has not only saved travel time, but helped the Japanese industries to acquire high-end industrial technology.  

The timeliness of Shinkansen has contributed to the Japanese cultural tenet: to be on time. Also, the impressive safety record of the Shinkansen has created the confidence that technological limit can be pushed without cutting down the safety margin.

This technological marvel has also contributed to record-breaking performance in cleaning. Between two trips, trains spend only 12 minutes at the station in Tokyo. It includes two minutes for passengers to disembark and three more for the next to get on, leaving only seven minutes for cleaning. During those crucial seven minutes, one person is in charge of one car with around 100 seats, and the whole car must be made spotlessly clean. To meet that strict seven-minute deadline, the cleaning process is broken down into smaller blocks which are completed in record time. For example, 1.5 minutes are spent to pick up trash, 30 seconds for rotating the seats, four minutes for sweeping and cleaning, and a minute to check. To equip cleaning personnel, the Japanese have also developed special purpose tools. Such performance has created the benchmark for the rest of the society for continuous improvement.

In recent times, there has been a tussle between Japan and China about infringement of Japan's high-speed rail technology. It's being argued that China has infringed Japan's technology while upgrading its high-speed train network-initially imported from Japan. It has been reported that Yoshiyuki Kasai, honorary chairman of the Central Japan Railway Company, criticised the decision to transfer technology. "The Shinkansen is the jewel of Japan. The technology transfer to China was a huge mistake," he said. On the other hand, China has refused to accept such an allegation. It was reported by Japan Times in 2011 that more than 1,900 technologies related to high-speed train had already been protected within Chinese national patenting system, while more than 481 were under review. This example raises typical contentious issue surrounding export of product with significant proprietary technology. It's also the manifestation of China's strategy to assimilate imported technology, improve it, and re-innovate better solution around it.

Also, there has been interest among several countries to import and install Shinkansen from Japan in recent times. For example, India has signed an agreement worth $17 billion to have bullet train running between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. As Japan is interested to export this technological marvel, even with soft loan, it may not be difficult for many countries to have Shinkansen running on their soils.

But developing countries should pay attention to underlying capability development, cultural and national pride surrounding this Japanese marvel. Instead of just dreaming of importing a bullet train through credit, the focus should be on importing and learning from the lesson around Shinkansen-acquire much needed technological capability and national confidence to upgrade economy from labour and resource based track to a sustainable high-speed one-thus enhancing the performance and income growth.

Rokonuzzaman is academic, researcher and activist on technology, innovation and policy


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