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The Japanese Shinkansen "Bullet Trains" actually come in a wide variety of types, but most people who've not visited Japan have only seen pictures of the very earliest types, from publicity photos back when the first Shinkansen line began operations in 1964.

Those units were the:

0 series

which entered service with the start of Tokaido Shinkansen operations in 1964. These units were white with a blue stripe along the windows and another at the bottom of the carbody, including the front pilot. The story goes that the noses were styled after the DC-8 airliner, and certainly the resemblance is apparent.

Unlike previous Japanese trains, the Tokaido Shinkansen and all subsequent Shinkansen were standard gauge (4'8½", 1435mm between the rails). The trains are all powered by 25kV AC electricity at 60Hz. On the 0 series, all axles of all cars are powered by 185 kW traction motors; this is sufficient for a 220km/h (136mph) top speed.

The original trains were 12-car sets; some subsequent sets were 16 car. Later, shorter trains of 6 cars and even 4 cars were assembled for lesser duties. Production of 0 series units continued from 1963 until 1986.

Life as a Shinkansen train is tough; though most rail equipment has a service life of thirty or more years, Shinkansen sets are tired after fifteen, and they are generally removed from service after that point. The astute reader will realise that all 0 series cars are now past fifteen years of service; therefore, few are left. The only 0 series sets now in use are 6 car sets used on JR West Kodama services between Shin-Osaka and Hakata, and on the Hakata Minami line, which is technically not a Shinkansen line (the extra fare is not charged).

100 series

This second generation Shinkansen design was produced between 1984 and 1991 for the Tokaido Shinkansen and Sanyo Shinkansen lines; the earliest units have now been withdrawn from service. The nose profile is more pointed than the 0 series. Another difference is that not all cars are powered; the driving cars on each end are unpowered, as are the two bi-level center cars in a sixteen car train. Some later production sets have powered driving cars and four unpowered bilevel trailers in the middle instead.

Now being taken off first line service, 100 series sets are being reformed into smaller 4 and 6 car sets for secondary service, to replace the last 0 series trains.

200 series

These actually predate the 100 series and were built for the new Tohuku Shinkansen and Joetsu Shinkansen lines between 1980 and 1986. They resemble the earlier 0 series in styling (some later units have the pointed 'shark nose' of the 100 series), but are lighter and more powerful, since these two lines are mountain routes and have steeper grades. These lines are also prone to snowfall and the trains have small snowplows fitted, as well as protection of equipment against snow.

They were originally painted in cream with a green window band and lower carbody band, but some have now been refurbished and painted into a white-upper/dark blue-lower scheme with new one piece wrap-around cab windows.

The first units were capable of 210 km/h (130mph) but later ones can do 240 km/h (150mph), and four have been converted to be capable of 275 km/h (170mph). Some units have also been modified with retractable couplers behind sliding nose doors to be able to couple with other Shinkansen units to produce longer trains that can be broken apart when needed.

Some of the earlier units have been withdrawn from service.

300 Series

These 270 km/h (168mph) units were introduced in 1992 for new, high speed Nozomi trains on the Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen. As more were delivered (66 trains by 1998) they replaced earlier units on Hikari service and allowed the thus displaced 100 series units to finally in turn displace 0 series units in almost all service.

The styling of these units is something of a 'curved wedge' at the front, replacing the aircraft-style nosecones of previous Shinkansen trains. The furthest forward point is the very bottom of the pilot. They are painted brilliant white with a medium-thick blue stripe beneath the windows.

They are only found in sixteen car sets and have no restaurant cars, though they do contain two refreshment counters.

Technically, they are notable for being the first Shinkansen employing three-phase AC traction motors instead of direct current units.

400 Series

These 'mini Shinkansen' units were designed for the Tohoku Shinkansen and Yamagata Shinkansen lines, which feature large portions that were not newly purpose built Shinkansen lines but rather existing lines regauged to standard gauge and upgraded, to provide a cheaper solution than a massively expensive dedicated Shinkansen line.

Clearances are much reduced compared to previous lines, and thus the 400 series units are much narrower than previous Shinkansen trains. Seat pitch is also reduced, which should be a warning to larger Westerners venturing to Japan!

Styling wise, the 400 series is another to have an aircraft-style nose with a pointed nosecone, though lower than 0/100/200 series. Originally they were painted a medium silver grey with a darker roof and area around the cab windows and underframe, but they have been recently repainted, with a higher area of dark bluish-grey on the underside, coming up almost to the side windows, and seperated from the silver grey with a green stripe. The dark grey on the roof and around the cab windows is gone.

They were originally six car sets, but a seventh car was added to each to reflect increased popularity of these services.

500 Series

These are truly astounding looking. If previous Shinkansen resembled conventional airliners in the front, these look like Concorde, or a fighter jet, or some train from a science-fiction movie or some futurist's depiction of the transportation of the future. A sharply pointed low needle nose slowly sweeping back in a gentle rise, with two-thirds of the way up a low bulge for cab windows.

The maximum design speed of these units is 320 km/h (200mph) and they achieve 300 km/h (186mph) in service. All sixteen cars in the train are powered, giving a train power of 18.24 MW (or an astounding 25000 horsepower). Computer controlled active suspension allows for a smooth ride even at such high speeds.

They serve on the Tokaido and Sanyo lines on high speed Nozomi service, and were introduced in 1995. The last was built in 1998.

The drawback to the 500 series is the reason only nine sets were built; the price tag. Each costs 5 billion yen, or over 40 million dollars.

700 Series

These units were basically designed to be almost as good as the 500 series for substantially less money; they're about 20 percent cheaper for a useable performance that's only a little less. They're capable of 285 km/h (177mph); given that speeds higher than that are only permitted on short stretches of line, the 15 km/h (10mph) difference in top speed makes for little actual difference in overall journey time.

If the 500 series is a thing of astounding beauty from the pages of science fiction, the 700 series is from another part of science fiction; the mutant. It looks like a platypus or something, with a big, fat 'duck bill' nose. I hope it does more wonders for the aerodynamics than it does for the looks. Otherwise, it resembles a 300 series train in color and styling.

Even the refreshment counters have been eliminated on these; the only thing left is vending machines selling drinks.

700 series units are still being delivered.

E1 Series 'Max'

These are the first double-deck Shinkansen trains, aimed at increasing capacity on services commonly used by commuters -- often loaded to 200% capacity (i.e. as many people standing as sitting). Six twelve-car trains were built between 1994 and 1995. They're painted mostly in a light grey color with silver grey and light green striping. They can be found on the Joetsu Shinkansen line. The top speed is 240 km/h (150mph).

E2 Series

These new trains for the Joetsu, Tohoku and the new Nagano Shinkansen began to be delivered in 1995 and are still in production. They are found in 8 car sets and have nose end couplings behind sliding nose doors, and can be coupled to the E3 series of the Akita Shinkansen.

They're capable of 315 km/h (195mph) although the service speed is generally rather less.

The styling resembles the 700 series but without the prominent 'duck bill' -- the nose is more normal shaped, though wide, but it has the same prominent 'shoulders' of the passenger compartment aft of the cab. They're painted white on top, dark blue below, with a crimson separating stripe.

E3 Series

Nineteen six or seven car sets of the E3 series were produced for the new Akita Shinkansen, another 'mini Shinkansen' line on converted existing tracks. Like the 400 series, they are narrower than regular Shinkansen. They are capable of 275 km/h (170mph) but only attain that speed over the lines of the Tohoku and Joetsu Shinkansen before reaching the Akita portion, over which only 130 km/h (80mph) can be attained. Some cars are painted in white upper/metallic grey lower with a magenta separating band, while others are silver above/grey below with a green separating band.

E4 Series 'Max'

These, the second series of double-deck Shinkansen trains, run over the Joetsu and Tohoku Shinkansen routes on commuter service. Twenty-four eight-car sets have been built, which are capable of coupling with other E4 series units to form 16 car sets, or with 400 series units on some trains.

The styling is rather odd, with a low elongated nose, somewhat similar to a 700 series but less duckbillish. They are painted white above and blue below, with a yellow stripe separating the two.

They are capable of the respectable but not amazing speed of 240 km/h (150mph), sufficient for the services they operate.

Prototypes and Experimental

In addition to the above service trains, a number of prototype and experimental units have been produced. These include the test and diagnostic Doctor Yellow trains.

No other unusual units are currently to be found, though in fall 2002 an experimental variable-gauge unit capable of both operating on standard gauge Shinkansen lines and conventional Japanese narrow gauge track is scheduled to begin testing on the Sanyo Shinkansen.


With help from a wide variety of sources, but technical facts came mostly from Byun Byun Shinkansen at http://www.h2.dion.ne.jp/~dajf/byunbyun/

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