Due to the mountainous nature of the region, Japan railways consisted of narrow gauge lines that could not be adapted to higher speeds until the middle of this century. Japan was the first country to build the Shinkansen network, since it had a great need for new high-speed lines. The line, opened in 1964, was a great success and reached the hundred million-passenger mark in 1967 and already a billion in 1976. Some of the first Shinkansen trains still operate between Osaka and Hakata.
Since the Shinkansen lines are different from those that have been built before, it was not often possible to build a new line, connecting to the existent station, and therefore, the second station was built. Hence, many Shinkansen stations have the prefix shin- such as the Shin- Yokohama station and the Shin-Osaka station, which simply means "new" in Japanese. The stations are long to accommodate the Shinkansen trains. The trains can be up to sixteen cars long with each car 82 ft long; the longest trains are 1 312 ft from their front to back.
The Shinkansen lines carry only passenger trains. The system closes between midnight and six a.m. every day and a few overnight trains that still run in Japan run on the old narrow gauge network, which is parallel to Shinkansen.
It is worth noting, that since the beginning of the Shinkansen operation, there have been no passenger fatalities, connected with the operation of the trains, though there have been many injuries and one fatality due to the doors closing on passengers or their belongings. There have been suicides by passengers, jumping both from and in front of moving trains and some stations have installed barriers to prevent passengers from accessing the tracks.
The trains have special equipment in the case of an earthquake or another emergency to stop the train quickly. During the Chuetsu quake in October 2004, the earthquake caught a Toki service Shinkansen running on the Joetsu line very close to the epicenter, but no injuries were reported.
Today, the main Shinkansen lines in Japan are Tokaido Shinkansen (Tokyo - Shin-Osaka), Sanyo Shinkansen (Shin-Osaka - Hakata), Tohoku Shinkansen (Tokyo - Hachinohe), Joetsu Shinkansen (Omiya - Niigata), Hokuriku Shinkansen or Nagano Shinkansen (Takasaki - Nagano), and Kyushu Shinkansen (Shin-Yatsushiro - Kagoshima-Chuo).
The Tokaido line was the first line, built in 1964 between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka on a distance of 320 mi. The Sanyo line was opened from Shin-Osaka to Okayama in 1972 and extended to Hakata in 1975. The Tohoku line from Omiya to Morioka followed in 1982. The Joetsu line was opened from Omiya to Niigata in 1982. The Hokuriku line was opened from Tokyo to Nagano (branching off from the Joetsu line) in 1997, but the line is still not fully complete. Several other lines are to be built in the nearest future.
Probably, the only disadvantage of the Shinkansen network is the noise pollution that makes difficult to create trains of a higher speed. Thus, the current research is aimed at reducing the operational noise of the Shinkansen lines and new trains of an increasing speed up to 330 km/h are under construction.
The Japanese railways are not the only in the world to use the Shinkansen technology. Taiwan High Speed Rail is being developed in China and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link will be used on high-speed commuter services in Britain.