On the morning of October 1, 1964, Japanese crowds welcomed the first two Shinkansen, or “new rail lines,” to the cities of Tokyo and Osaka (Von Finn 22).  These new trains were the first bullet trains the world had ever seen.  They could reach a maximum of 135 miles per hour and on their very first trial cut the train trip between Tokyo and Osaka from seven hours to four (Von Finn 7).  The year 1984 saw the first magnetic levitation, or maglev, train built in Great Britain.  Since then, maglevs have become the fastest type of train in the world and can exceed speeds of 310 miles per hour (Boslaugh).  Both bullet and maglev trains are high-speed vehicles that seek to accelerate travel and offer alternatives to transportation by airplane, car, or boat, and they have many similarities and differences in history, function, environmental impact, and safety.

A TGV in France

The inception of bullet trains began in a surprising place and at a surprising time.  Japan introduced the first bullet trains only nineteen years after the end of World War II, the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the overthrow of her government.  These new trains were predominately the result of the work of Hideo Shima.  Shima was a Japanese engineer, and he designed the track layout, electrical facilities, and cars for the Shinkansen (Mara 26).  Following the success of the Shinkansen in Japan, other countries began to build bullet trains.  In 1981 France became the first European country to build a bullet train system.  Its railroad connected Paris and Lyon and was named Train à Grande Vitesse, or “train of great speed,” and is known today as the TGV (Reutter).  From 1988 to 1992, Great Britain, Italy, Germany, and Spain followed France’s example.  According to an article on bullet trains written in 2013, Australia, China, Finland, South Korea, Sweden, and Taiwan are other countries that have, or are developing, high-speed rail lines (“Railroad”).  Acela Express, which runs between Washington, D.C., and Boston, is currently the only high-speed service in the United States, but is not a bullet train.  In 2008 voters in California sanctioned the construction of a bullet train line between Los Angeles and San Francisco (Reutter).

A Maglev Train in Germany
A Maglev Train in Germany

During the early 1900s, American professor and inventor Robert Goddard and engineer Emile Bachelet conceptualized maglev trains.  Yet it was not until Great Britain created a small maglev train line in Birmingham in 1984 that maglevs became a reality.  Two years later, a short section of a maglev train appeared in the Vancouver World’s Fair, and Germany ran a maglev in Berlin for a short time before dismantling it in 1992 (Boslaugh).  Today, several commercial maglev systems operate around the world.  A maglev train built in 2005 runs in Aichi, Japan.  This system is around 5.6 miles long, has nine station stops, and reaches speeds of around 62 miles per hour (Boslaugh).  Other maglev trains operate in Korea and Shanghai.  The train in Shanghai is the longest commercial maglev system and covers about 18.6 miles.  Japan plans to create a maglev train system to connect Osaka to Tokyo.  If built, this train would become the longest maglev in the world, covering a distance of 319 miles.

Several factors led to the creation of the first bullet trains in Japan.  In the 1950s, the Japanese population was expanding rapidly, and Tokyo and Osaka were becoming Japan’s centers of commerce.  This meant that the workforce began moving to these cities.  However, buying homes in Tokyo and Osaka was very expensive, so many workers began living in cheaper suburbs and commuting to work.  Consequently, Japan’s trains, roads, and cities became crowded (Von Finn 6).  To solve these transportation problems, Japan built the Shinkansen, which provided faster commutation and allowed workers to live even farther away from the big cities, where land was scarce and expensive.  In addition, Japan needed an efficient way to transport people for the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, and the Shinkansen were the perfect solution.

As with the first bullet trains, a number of reasons motivated the creation of maglev trains.  Because they do not touch the train rails, maglevs experience less friction than normal trains, enabling them to reach much higher speeds than regular bullet trains.  This lack of friction allows maglev trains to operate very quietly and lowers the cost of maintenance because parts do not wear out quickly (Boslaugh).  Thanks to the way they work, the cars for maglev trains can also be much larger than those in bullet trains, allowing for more comfort.

A Bullet Train in Taiwan
A Bullet Train in Taiwan

In addition to their history, bullet trains have many similarities and some differences with maglevs in how they function.  Bullet trains run on either diesel or electricity, although electricity is most common.  If a bullet train operates on electricity, it has an antenna-like device called a pantograph on top of its locomotive.  The pantograph connects to overhead electrical wires called catenaries, providing the train with power (Von Finn 10).  These trains earned their name because of their sleek, streamlined shape and bullet-like nose, which allow them to travel at high speeds.  Due to the speeds at which bullet trains travel, their tracks have gentle curves, long rails, and smooth rail connections.  In fact, engineers have designed some high-speed trains, like the Acela Express, to tilt as they travel around curves, decreasing the force passengers experience (Graham 18; Von Finn 13).  A problem that bullet trains sometimes encounter is snow.  If there is a lot of fallen snow on the track, trains have to travel more slowly.  In some places, sprinklers have been installed to help melt snow and keep it from piling up (Mara 22).

Because magnetic levitation trains developed from bullet trains, they have similarities in how they function.  Like many bullet trains, maglev trains require electricity to operate.  However, maglev trains do not have engines, typically do not have wheels, and are propelled by magnets, not by electricity itself.  Commonly, magnets of like polarity are placed along the track, or guideway, on which a maglev train runs and on the bottom of the train.  These magnets repel each other, lifting the train up.  Then, “by continuously changing the polarity in alternate magnets, a series of magnetic attractions and repulsions is created that moves the vehicle along the track” (“Magnetic Levitation”).  One visible difference between bullet trains and maglev trains is the shape of the front of each train.  Maglev trains are often much less pointed than bullet trains, though they still maintain an aerodynamic shape.  Just as with bullet trains, maglevs run on very smooth guideways and avoid sharp curves.  In contrast to bullet trains, however, maglevs are not greatly affected by snow or other bad weather conditions.  This is because they are not propelled by friction like bullet trains are.  Another interesting difference between the function of bullet trains and maglevs is that maglevs “can potentially provide quicker acceleration and braking than wheeled systems” (“Maglev”).

An Azure Kingfisher
Engineers redesigned the noses of bullet trains to imitate the beaks of kingfishers.

One of the many reasons for the popularity of bullet trains is that they decrease the environmental impact of modern transportation.  An electric bullet train emits only fifteen percent of the carbon dioxide that an automobile releases in an equivalent journey, and even a diesel bullet train uses less energy than cars and airliners per passenger mile (Mara 8; Reutter).  Sound pollution was a big problem for bullet trains in Japan.  In order to keep people from being disturbed by the train noise, the Japanese government enforced strict regulations on how much noise could be allowed (Mara 11).  Passage through tunnels and the pantographs of trains both created very loud sounds at high speeds, so the government required the trains to run more slowly until the noises were fixed.  By mimicking the design of owl wings and kingfisher beaks, a team of engineers led by Eiji Kakatsu improved the design of bullet trains and solved the problem (Mara 14-19).  Now, bullet trains function very quietly and create little sound pollution.

Like bullet trains, maglev trains have less impact on the environment than other types of transportation.  Because they are engineless and powered by magnets, maglev trains emit no carbon dioxide, making them even better for the environment around them than normal bullet trains.  This makes maglevs ideal for cities where air pollution is a problem.  Maglev trains are also slightly more energy efficient than conventional bullet trains (Boslaugh).  The absence of friction as they run makes maglevs very quiet as well, meaning they create even less sound pollution than bullet trains.

Passengers Boarding a Maglev TrainNot only do bullet trains have less of an impact on the environment; they also are very safe.  In recent years, there have been only two bullet train accidents, one in China in 2011 and one in Spain in 2013 (“China Bullet Train Crash”).  The Shinkansen in Japan has an exceptional safety record.  These trains have transported over 150 million passengers annually without a single passenger death due to a crash or derailment (Mara 8).  Where earthquakes are common, bullet trains have sensor systems which stop them long before they near the center of an earthquake (Mara 22).  Bullet trains often run on right-of-way tracks.  To keep people, animals, and automobiles off the track and improve safety, these right-of-ways avoid automobile crossings and have fences around them (Von Finn 15).

The passenger safety record of maglevs is excellent, as well.  Only one accident has occurred in the history of maglev trains.  Maglev trains have several safety advantages over bullet trains because the speed of and distance between each maglev vehicle are “automatically controlled and maintained by the frequency of the electric power fed to the guideway” (Powell).  Thanks to their design, the derailment of maglev trains is highly unlikely (Boslaugh).  Because maglev guideways are elevated, automobiles do not cross paths with maglevs, eliminating the possibility of collisions like those at grade crossings.

Maglev Train
A Maglev Train in Japan

The year 2014 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the first bullet trains and the thirtieth anniversary of the first maglev train.  For decades these two trains have been accelerating travel.  In the age of the automobile and airplane, bullet trains and maglevs offer advantages neither cars nor planes have, for these trains are faster than cars, and cheaper and more convenient than planes.  Filled with similarities and differences, bullet trains and maglevs are innovative technologies that have interesting histories, incredible ways of functioning, and increasing cleanliness for the environment and safety for the passengers who ride them.



Works Cited

Boslaugh, Sarah E. “Maglev Train.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 28 Jan. 2014.

Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. 21 Oct. 2014


“China Bullet Train Crash ‘Caused by Design Flaws.’” BBC.com. 28 Dec. 2011.  BBC

Online Services. 24 Oct. 2014 <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-


Graham, Ian. Bullet Trains and Other Fast Machines on Rails. Irvine, California: QEB

Publishing, Inc., 2010.

“Maglev.” Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia (2014): 1p. 1. Funk & Wagnalls New

World Encyclopedia. Web. 27 Oct. 2014.

“Magnetic Levitation.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition (2013): 1. History

Reference Center. Web. 3 Oct. 2014.

Mara, Wil. From Kingfishers to…Bullet Trains. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Cherry Lake

Publishing, 2013.

Powell, James, and Gordon Danby. “MAGLEV: The New Mode of Transport for the 21st

Century.” 21st Century Science & Technology Magazine Summer 2003. 24 Oct. 2014


“Railroad.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition (2013): 1-3. History

Reference Center. Web. 3 Oct. 2014.

Reutter, Mark. “Bullet Trains For America?.” Wilson Quarterly 33.4 (2009): 26. History

Reference Center. Web. 3 Oct. 2014.

Von Finn, Denny. Bullet Trains. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bellwether Media, Inc., 2010.

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