The prospect for railways looked decidedly uncertain in the 1960s as they struggled to compete with the rapid expansion of road and air transport. Many railways were suffering from rapidly-mounting losses, making it difficult to fund much-needed modernisation leading to large-scale withdrawal of services and line closures. The opening of the Shinkansen was the first tangible evidence that rail transport could reinvent itself.
Nevertheless, there was some doubt that Japanese National Railways (JNR) had a potential winner, as IRJ's managing director Robert G Lewis observed upon visiting the first Shinkansen line shortly before it opened in an article that appeared in the October 1964 edition of IRJ. "Much of the railway world is at least a little sceptical about the kind of high-speed operations which JNR has planned for its new Tokaido Line passenger trains," Lewis wrote. "My own pre-opening inspection of the new line leads to the conclusion that its capabilities with respect to passenger movement are, if anything, underrated."
The various innovations and gradual adoption of high-speed rail around the world that followed Japan's inaugural project would ultimately prove Lewis's assertions correct.
It would have been easy for Lewis to consider Japan's achievement as an Asian, or Japanese, phenomenon and not applicable to the west in a world that was far from the globalised society that we know today. Yet with "eyes of railway men turned - with a mixture of curiosity and admiration - on the just-opened Tokaido Line," Lewis asked, "what does the future hold for this remarkable new railway?"
His discoveries make for fascinating reading given the development of high-speed since 1964.
Lewis revealed that a special committee was set up in June 1964 to look at equipment design that would permit trains to run at 300km/h or more in the future.
He also hinted at new innovations in technology under development and describes plans for a tunnel "paralleling in magnitude the English Channel project [which] has been initiated between the main island of Honshu and the island of Hokkaido in the north."
Work on the Seikan Tunnel commenced in 1971, with the first trains running in 1988 in what will remain, until the opening of the Gotthard Base Tunnel in 2016, the world's longest and deepest railway tunnel. However, with Shinkansen trains still waiting to use the tunnel until the opening of the Hokkaido Shinkansen in March 2016, it shows that the network's growth did not quite happen as initially envisaged.
Opening the Shinkansen benefited the conventional network by removing long-distance passenger services and freeing up capacity for freight. This was not lost on Lewis who pointed out that "even if the Tokaido Line had not been built, activities on the rest of JNR would be highly newsworthy in themselves. So many of these kind of projects are underway that in spring of this year there was established a JNR New Line Construction Company with responsibility for new railway projects."
Lewis viewed JNR's achievement as transforming it from looking to the rest of the world for railway techniques "just a few years ago" to the "role of innovator." Japan certainly retains this status and its high-speed achievements have clearly influenced the rest of the world - from France's initial forays into high-speed in the 1980s to China's remarkable high-speed development programme today.
Despite this, the common perception remains that the Japanese "bullet train" still defines what is meant by high-speed rail. And with plans to develop a maglev line continuing, Japan looks likely to pioneer and shape how the world sees high-speed rail well into the 21st century, something Lewis would no doubt have pointed out.
The railway world owes Japan a great debt of gratitude for placing its faith in rail transport and pioneering high-speed rail. Without this, railway history might have been very different.