Forget Brad Pitt. The bullet train is the star

by GEAROID REIDY (Bloomberg Opinion) 

IN THE world of the movie “Bullet Train,” opening in US theatres this weekend, Brad Pitt is an assassin in a hyper-stylised, neon-tinged Japan; Sandra Bullock and Puerto Rican pop sensation Bad Bunny also appear. 

But forget them: The real star should be the train. A staple set for any movie that takes place in Japan, from “Lost In Translation” to “Inception”, it’s about time the Shinkansen itself got top billing. Based on a novel by Japanese mystery writer Kotaro Isaka, “Bullet Train” shows the enduring obsession with Japan’s ultra-efficient and super-fast trains, nearly 60 years since their introduction.  

Famously, there has never been a fatal accident — not even when a Shinkansen derailed earlier this year after a magnitude 7.4 earthquake. But these are tricky times for what is perhaps the world’s most famous train. The pandemic has altered lifestyles in Japan in a way that might be permanent; Zoom calls are increasingly taking the place of the business day-trips that are the backbone of bullet-train revenues, and foreign tourists remain largely absent.  

East Japan Railway Co says revenue from its bullet trains, which includes the Tohoku Shinkansen route between Tokyo and Morioka used in Isaka’s original novel, is less than 60% of pre-Covid times, and expects that figure will still be 10% below 2019 levels at the end of its fiscal year next March. On the more famous Tokyo-Osaka route, operated by JR Central and featured in the movie version of “Bullet Train”, ridership remains at just 70% of pre-pandemic levels. 

This problem comes just five years before JR Central is supposed to open a brand new, 500kph line using magnetic-levitation technology that will connect Tokyo and the industrial heartland of Nagoya in just 40 minutes at a cost of more than US$50 billion (RM222.83 billion). And it’s far from the only issue the trains are facing. 

The maglev project itself seems highly unlikely to make its 2027 opening date, with work halted in Shizuoka prefecture over an environmental dispute. Cynics suspect the opposition might have more to do with the fact that while the train will pass through the prefecture, it wasn’t deemed important enough to merit a lucrative stop. 

Set to be the fastest in the world when it begins service, the train will also generate higher energy costs. At a time when Japan is facing the prospect of blackouts due to an energy supply squeeze, the maglev will use several times the power of a regular bullet train for its superconducting magnetic lines.  

In Japan’s southernmost island, JR Kyushu will next month open what’s being referred to as the country’s shortest bullet train. The new route will join Nagasaki with Takeo Onsen in Saga prefecture — but the track, just 67km long, isn’t linked to the rest of the Shinkansen network. A dispute between national and local authorities means work to link to lines serving elsewhere in Kyushu hasn’t even begun. 

And further north, the Hokkaido Shinkansen is still losing money, US$111 million last fiscal year alone, with an average of just 1,700 people riding the train each day. The extension that will link it to Sapporo in 2030 — the city that may host the Winter Olympics that year — as well as the ski paradise of Niseko can’t come fast enough. 

But the issue attracting most discussion among Japan’s train lovers involves decidedly slower lines. The sustainability of local routes that are the lifelines criss-crossing much of the rural countryside has become a topic of debate. Ridership on some lines in JR West’s area has fallen to 10% of the level when the firm was privatised in the late 1980s, with more adults owning cars and fewer young people to take their place on the train. That’s led management to talk for the first time about potentially shutting some of these lines, something opposed by the elderly. 

The impact of changing times can be felt on Tokyo’s trains, too: Rail operators including JR East have brought forward the last train by 30 minutes, with fewer people staying out late due to the growing acceptance of remote work and a lingering reluctance to go to potentially Covid-spreading drinking parties. 

All of these highlight problems that will only increase as Japan’s population ages and shrinks; the pandemic has merely put these long-standing issues in focus. The bullet trains have long been profit drivers for the JR companies, which were privatised in such a way that gave each of them a piece of the pie, in return for maintaining money-losing rural routes. 

But this is also the beauty of Japan’s trains: While being private, dividend-paying enterprises, they also operate partly as a public service, whether it’s maintaining old train lines with dwindling ridership or moving ahead with ambitious projects like the maglev. With the UK hemming and hawing over its “High Speed 2” rail link for northern England and the US permanently vacillating over the merits of high-speed rail, it’s good to have a first-world nation that still appreciates the role of infrastructure ahead of the relentless pursuit of profit. 

Scepticism over the maglev is understandable. Still, it’s worth keeping in mind that the original Tokyo-Osaka Shinkansen itself was derided as being as expensive and functionally useless as the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China and the ill-fated World War II battleship Yamato. 

Now, it’s the star of a movie, highlighting the international envy a forward-thinking infrastructure project can bring. Who knows, perhaps Brad Pitt can even star in a maglev-set sequel. Bloomberg / Pic by Bloomberg