Fifty years ago this month, Japan’s bullet trains completed their first trips and were welcomed by hundreds of people who had waited overnight in the terminals. The new high-speed line connected two massive economic hubs, Tokyo and Osaka, cutting the travel time between them from about seven hours to four. The shinkansen, as it’s called in Japanese, has carried roughly 10 billion riders since then, with a pristine record of safety and dependability: There haven’t been any fatal train derailments or collisions, and the average delay is 36 seconds.
The shinkansen has long been a symbol of Japanese efficiency, but its importance in shaping Japan’s economy is much more than symbolic. Most of Japan’s population lives in a surprisingly small number of places—only 20 percent of the country’s land is habitable—and a high-speed train is an elegant solution for shuttling workers from one dense city to another.
The most frequently discussed—and most intuitive—effect of the bullet train is that it allows workers to live in distant, relatively undeveloped areas, and commute to, say, Tokyo in two hours. As The Guardian put it recently, the bullet train has made “an increasingly huge part of the country little more than a bedroom community for the capital.” Another notable effect of bullet trains is the boon to tourism: When far-flung places are easily accessed by rail, tourists are more likely to visit them.