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A bullet train travels through Shin-Kobe station in Kobe, Japan. The nation’s famous network of high-speed trains is facing more than just a pandemic-related ridership slump.  

A bullet train travels through Shin-Kobe station in Kobe, Japan. The nation’s famous network of high-speed trains is facing more than just a pandemic-related ridership slump.  

Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg
CityLab
Transportation

Japan’s Bullet Trains Are Hitting a Speed Bump

Covid-related ridership drops and long-term population trends are raising hard questions about the future of the Shinkansen network of high-speed trains. 

Corrected

It’s hard to overstate the power and significance of Japan’s bullet trains. A global symbol of the nation's technological sophistication for more than 50 years, the network of high-speed trains known as “Shinkansen” (or “new trunk line”) is both a source of national pride and a critical element in the country’s transportation infrastructure. The trains can hit 200 miles per hour on more than 1,800 miles of tracks, knitting together an archipelago that, if lined up against North America, would stretch from British Columbia to Baja, California. Since launching in 1964, the bullet trains have proved to be remarkably safe, resilient and lucrative: Not only do many of the lines turn a healthy profit, but Shinkansen technology, including the software that supports the trains’ famous punctuality, is a valuable Japanese export

No amount of technology, however, can withstand the disruptive tide of the global pandemic, which has severely reduced travel to and within Japan. Beyond the immediate ridership and revenue hit, longer term challenges loom. Japan’s aging population is in decline: By 2065, it is projected to shrink by up to 35%, and already-low birthrates are continuing to fall as young people move away from smaller towns and rural areas and concentrate in major cities like Tokyo, where birthrates are lowest. A 2014 report issued by an independent think tank offered the dire prediction that by 2050, half of Japan’s regional cities and towns would be extinct.