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Japan's Brand New Bullet Train Is Earthquake-Proof (popularmechanics.com)
52 points by prostoalex 5 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 65 comments

Interestingly the Japanese shinkansen system has seismic detectors all over the route. If there's enough activity detected then it can automatically stop all trains. Clever stuff.

Japan as a country has seismic detectors all over.

These are fed into a centralized earthquake early warning system that stops not only Shinkansen, but other trains, elevators, alerts surgeons in hospitals, sends out broadcast push notifications to phones, etc. The system is so fast that the notifications arrive to areas beyond the epicenter before the seismic waves themselves, giving people and devices precious seconds to prepare [0]

Compare the number of seismographs in Japan https://www.jma.go.jp/jma/en/Activities/image/earth-fig02.pn...

To California (only the green ones exist, blue are proposals) https://cdn.kqed.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/35/2018/10/CA_...

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earthquake_Early_Warning_(Japa...

> The system is so fast that the notifications arrive to areas beyond the epicenter before the seismic waves themselves, giving people and devices precious seconds to prepare

TBF, even Twitter is a "notification system fast enough to arrive in areas before the seismic wave". There's been numerous reports of twitter users seeing tweets about an earthquake before experiencing the shock wave.

Building a system that can do that reliably is an engineering feat but we're talking on the order of 10s of seconds, not milliseconds.

For reference, here are the two maps superimposed on one another at the same scale (again, only the green markers are real markers on the California map).

[1] https://ibb.co/x5tLwHf

I’d say this isn’t just clever, it’s absolutely necessary

Standing in a train station as a Shinkansen roars through without stopping was one of the most exhilarating things I've experienced. Worth the trip to Japan just for that alone.

I've had a similar experience with an ICE train going through a provincial station on a very straight track outside Berlin.

Unlike in (most?) stations in Japan, there are no gates between platforms and track. I was standing maybe two-three meters away. (Took a step back initially out of fear of aerodynamic effects.) Damn, that was impressive! The roar, ground shaking, and how fast it was gone.

On a later ICE trip over that track, I observed that the train was doing 200 km/h at that point. ICEs can go 250-300 or so (on suitable tracks, which aren't many) based on model.

That must be a real buzz. As a kid my biggest thrill was watching the Mallard [0] steam train rush through our small station on the London-Edinburgh main line at about 100 mph. [0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LNER_Class_A4_4468_Mallard

The HST125s are impressive when they roar through. They pull at your clothes and rattle all the signs.


And here I am amused by Caltrain's Baby Bullets doing the same thing…

In fairness, the Caltrain is double-decker to the shinkansen’s single decker. It is further higher because the Caltrain platforms are less elevated. You can usually get closer to a fast moving Caltrain, as most stations are double tracked (many Shinkansen stations have sidings for loading trains and the passing trains are on interior tracks) And the diesel-electric engine makes an impressive rumble.

I personally think Caltrain still ranks well in terms of an impressive experience watching it pass.

It really is amazing! Like being in a wind tunnel almost. Got to go on the Shinkansen from Kyoto to Tokyo and back. Expensive but wouldn't have been a visit to Japan without it as a train fan.

It’s expensive if you reside in Japan. If you’re visiting you can get all-you-can eat rail travel (including Shinkansen, though only a limited choice) for relatively little money, e.g. one week for less than $300 and two weeks for less than $450), see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japan_Rail_Pass.

It’s great, but make sure to order it before you get there.

And there are calculators online to tell you if it is worth it for your itinerary.

The Japan Rail Pass doesn't let you ride the fastest Shikansen variants (namely the ones that stop at the fewest stations), FYI.

Unfortunately it wasn’t planned so I bought it on the spot. Cost £200 or around 28k yen.

Same for me, going from Tokyo to Osaka was an amazing experience. It only saddened me when I returned (New Zealand) and realized how much better tourism would be here if we had a similar way to travel from Auckland to Wellington/ChCh/Matamata/Rotorua. I would definitely save just to travel within New Zealand (roads are narrow/hilly/curvy, buses take a long time, ferry not available everywhere, air travel expensive and limited too).

Japan has initiatives like these because there's cross party consensus that they're a public good. I can't see it happening in NZ with three year election terms and the policies of the National Party (et el) heavily favouring road over rail.

Not to mention, you know, the cost of high speed rail in a country of 5 million.

What station is suitable for trying that? I thought they stopped at every station?

Some of the lines departing from Tokyo Station are Special/Express lines and don't stop at most intermediate stations. There's a Shinkansen to Sendai that some coworkers and I took on a trip to Japan that was like that.

I experienced this at Odawara station. I was there at around 11PM waiting for a train back to Tokyo.

Yeah, because Tokaido Hikari shinkansen stops there but the more express Nozomi doesn't.

Generalising to any shinkansen line. To experience this effect, you'd need to take a sub-express train (still very fast) to/from a station where the fastest train doesn't stop.

The article asks "why can't we have one?"

Well, when you can get political, social, and financial factors in the US to give input to <xyz> rail system that such a kind of train service is desired and worth the cost/benefit valued by those parties, then we'll have it.

Otherwise, we're stuck with Amtrak for the moment.

Looking from outside, the ability to act together as a society to achieve a socially desirable outcome seems to slipping in the West. There's a point where the balance in society between duties and entitlements seems to have flipped.

The issue seems to be scale. Governments aren't willing to take on large scale projects, because they're hard and long. They want to do (new) things that are easy with a short term return on investment.

Thinking about it, it feels a bit like a modern company. Instead of managers wanting to show that they did something good to get a raise, instead we have politicians that try to show that they did something good to get reelected.


Plenty of places in Europe are just as diverse as the US and still manage to come together and collectively fund important civil and social priorities.

Maybe you're just trolling; I can't really tell.

>Plenty of places in Europe are just as diverse as the US and still manage to come together and collectively fund important civil and social priorities.

Mind naming some ?

Europe is relatively homogeneous ethnically and racially compared to the US. The exception could be largest metropolitan areas, but even there I'd say US is more heterogeneous.

Not saying anything in support of arguments related to this just saying I don't know what plenty of places you'd compare to US.

This seems like a good place to start: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_ranked_by_et...

Spain is the obvious one that stands out.

Spain is a pretty terrible example of "great public cooperation between different groups" - do you know anything about it's history or the situation with Basque ?

Also it's not really a good example of efficient public projects or a well functioning state compared more developed EU countries or the US.

I recently did a little research on traveling from the US southwest to the US midwest. I wanted to avoid the hostility of US commercial air travel and was looking at alternatives to driving a car. Driving a car was going to be a two day ordeal with a hotel stop somewhere.

Turns out driving a car across the US is faster than Amtrak, even with an overnight stop at a hotel.

AZ -> IL:

  26 hours by car + 8 hour hotel stay

  35 hour train ride.

  $120-150 gas + $100 hotel

  $600 train ticket
Of course a plane ticket is < $200 and just a handful of hours. I wouldn't expect Amtrak to compete with those. But if you can't compete with a Ford Fusion over an 1800 mile journey...

I made the same calculation getting from San Jose to Portland. I wanted to avoid air travel, so I checked the train. I'm taking four people.

    Air: $628 and about 5 hours (security, parking, etc)
    Train: $312 for coach, 21 hours (driving on each end)
    Train: $750 for a room for four
    My van: $120 gas, no hotel, 12 hours door to door w/ stops.  
The car is maybe $300 if you include wear and tear. But as a bonus, I have a car for my week in Portland. To have that same benefit with the other transit, I'd have to rent a car for a few hundred dollars at the other end.

Heck, I could pay someone to drive my van for me for about $150 each way, and still break even with the train but save time.

It's only cheaper because you're ignoring wear and tear (aka maintenance), depreciation and insurance in your calculation. Not to mention it's incredibly unsafe to do a 26h ride in two days instead of three - you don't want to do a 13h ride, so realistically you're looking at two days of some motel to stay over night.

For what it's worth a proper high speed train could do a 10 hour run at 300-350 km/h. Not exactly the ~900 km/h of your typical airplane, but at least you 'll have a decent seat over the travel time.

A 10-13h drive (with breaks) on a modern (say > 2009) car is surprisingly non-strenuous on US interstates. I've done it and it was not onerous. The driving experience in the U.S. is markedly different from other countries -- interstates are wide and relatively smooth-flowing outside major cities, and rest stops are plentiful.

To most Europeans a >10h drive sounds excessive, and that might be the case in certain parts of Europe, but the U.S. is (perhaps unfortunately, from an environmental perspective) built around the automobile, and the driving experience here is somehow different (i.e. easier).

I've driven in Germany and while I enjoyed spending hours cruising on the Autobahn (A-8), parts of the journey involved driving on tiny, narrow roads in small towns. Those segments were frustrating. I haven't yet tried it, but I don't think I'd be able to drive > 5 hours in Europe (but I could be wrong).

I find the more frustrating part of driving on the Autobahn being the constant changes in speed limit. You cant just cruise 170kmh all the way, since theres so many construction along the way plus the random 90kmh zone here and there.

Phoenix to Chicago is about 1700 miles. At 70mph moving average it's a 25 hour drive. Trucking regulations allow a 14 hour drive, ten hours rest followed by I believe a 12 hour drive. It might be strenous but it's not dangerous.

Also keep in mind 1700 miles at the IRS standard deduction of 55 cents a mile is $935. Assuming your car seats four (and all four seats are in use) that breaks down to just under $200/person.

> Trucking regulations allow a 14 hour drive

Whoa, WTF? In Europe, it's 8 hours regularly with 2x a week allowance of 10 hours (to be used e.g. in case of massive traffic jams), followed by at least 11 hours.

Why is there some physiological reason that makes longer drives unsafe? In my experience I can drive as long as I can stay awake, which I can certainly do for 13 hours in a stretch (and then some). I find it easier to be the driver than a passenger, for that matter, as at least I have something to do.

Even if you can manage to stay alert for so long, wide parts of the population cannot, which is why maximum limits have been introduced for commercial drivers everywhere (and accidents rates have fallen correspondingly), and why in accidents drivers who have been on the road too long are generally found to be at least partially at fault.

Additionally, who says you're actually able to drive safely after 13 hours and react to something like, let's say, a child hopping in front of your car and that you just have been extremely lucky?

Or, for 4 passengers, $120-170 gas + $100-200 hotel, which is still cheaper than a single seat on Amtrak.

One thing to note is that the bullet trains in Japan are also expensive to ride. A 300km, 1hr20min train ride costs $100/person.

But it still works out, because driving is also expensive - the highway network in Japan is privatized, and the tolls are pretty steep. The tolls for the same trip as above are $40. Add to that the cost of gas and parking, and driving only ends up being cheaper once you're several people sharing a ride.

> The article asks "why can't we have one?"

Because the geography of the US is quite different from Japan. In Japan you follow the coasts to reach each city: it's a straight line to simplify things. In the US you would need a lot more tracks to cover the territory, and tracks are super expensive to build and maintain.

I'm sorry, I think reducing the lack of modern rail in the United States to "because the geography is different" almost completely misses the mark. We don't have anything close to this, anywhere. There are plenty of places in the US with equally simple geography and fewer earthquake considerations, and it's still not implemented.

That is almost entirely due to issues with politics and public policy. The actual physical construction of the rails would easily be the most simple part of the process. As you pointed out, maintenance would have costs, but it's not like existing rails don't include similar costs as well. Certainly there are many parts of the US where those costs would be lower than the equivalent in Japan anyway, since their climate is generally more temperamental than say, almost anywhere along the US West Coast.

I totally agree with this assessment. Road building and maintenance has huge costs too, but those come from general revenue in the US so people don’t notice it.

It was a choice in the US to build the free-to-use interstate system just as it was a choice in Japan to build the shinkansen. The highway system in Japan is not free; it is tolled and it costs roughly the same in tolls for a single person to drive vs use the shinkansen. Local trains in most cities are good too. With these policies, applied over decades, trains became the default mode of transportation.

Also, Japan is very mountainous making it probably one of the most expensive countries To build rail in. But it’s a moot point because they managed to build up a national highway system as well as a it national train system, I think proving that it’s a matter of policy and not geography.

The other common argument is difference in population density, but this also misses the mark for 2 reasons. First of all, the US had a pretty impressive network of rail before it has an impressive highway system, it’s just mostly used for freight now and policy for public transportation shifted to roads. Second, at least the 2 coasts have high population density more or less covered by a straight line which ought to be well served by fast trains.

Everyone has roads at all stages in their development. It's not an either-or. But based on a few historical samples, it seems like developing nations (US a century ago included) build national rail lines to support rapid development. Then build interstates (or some equivalent, assuming they are big enough to need them) to upgrade their highway system after being fully developed.

No, Japan is terrible for building bullet train infrastructure. It's so mountainous that building straight enough track requires lots of expensive tunnel drilling. The new maglev is something like 90% tunnels. The places in the US where there would be demand for a bullet train have much more straightforward geography.

You lack knowledge of Japan.

I live in Japan. Wrong assumption.

Then you don't know the geography of the country you live in. The Shinkansen goes through numerous tunnels in it's normal route.

Then you are clueless about shinkansen and geography. I also live in Japan.

Related, this is a great post by patio11 on one of the last large Japanese earthquakes and how it was handled by various systems: https://www.kalzumeus.com/2011/03/13/some-perspective-on-the...

The secret whitepaper guy? No thanks.

A project to implement a similar earthquake early warning system for the earthquake-prone west coast of the united states has faced a lot of difficulty in obtaining funding but is slowly making progress. They are currently developing alert communication systems and integrations with automated controls, and have complete sensor networks for just a few areas.



How common are assaults on Japanese bullet trains? Even very old bullet trains in Japan should be highly pandemic-resistant, and not any more prone to assault than, say, your average commercial airplane.

Assaults mostly happen on crowded subway trains during rush hours.

The solution to that has been to make some cars women-only.

The topic is Japanese bullet trains.

And dedicated cars is a disappointing solution. Unfortunately, having any witness call out the perpetrator and let the crowd break the perps fingers is not a very suitable solution, either.

A more obvious step is to limit the occupancy of a car. I've been smashed into the crowded cars. It's a bad idea for more reasons than this. But if you cut the occupancy to 1/3, you have to run 3x as many cars. Maybe start by charging 2x for rush hour or otherwise peak times to pay for 2x the trains. Of course, there is a limit to the number of cars you can put on a track. But if it takes more money to build more capacity, raise prices.

It's not a problem easily solved with a single paragraph on HN. "Dedicated cars for women" takes a lot less thought and accomplishes much. It just doesn't address the real social problem.

bullet trains are not where groping happens... everyone has a seat in bullet trains, except for rare exceptions like Golden Week or end of the year holidays where Shinkansen sometimes run over capacity.

and, speaking from experience, the "slow" tourist one that's included with the JR pass. On the way to Osaka from Iwakuni, we found ourselves with a few other tourists getting to ride the Shin sitting on our luggage at the back of one of the cars. Not a horrible experience, obviously, and gave us the opportunity to have a nice 45 minute chat about "WE ARE IN JAPAN AND IT IS THE BEST" with people we wouldn't have otherwise met.

I got such a kick out of the "slow" shin still being worlds better than anything here in the USA.

Misleading title. Retorted.

The Japanese also thought a very large magnitude earthquake couldn't happen in the tohoku region. Never say never.

Also Kobe was declared as a safe city before 1995, where earthquakes don't happen. They were badly surprised when the Great Hanshin earthquake hit.

The earthquake was not expected well but not thought as couldn't happen.

No the seismic hazard models were not designed to account for a rupture across all the zones. The earthquake was not anticipated.


Not anticipated but it not means thought as couldn't happen. Most earthquakes are not well anticipated. I also doubt whether the model useful.

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