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Japan Revs Up High-Speed Train for Olympics

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 22, 1997; Page A12

 The $7 billion Asama races from Tokyo to Nagano, a distance of about 120 miles, in just 79 minutes.
(Katsumi Kasahara/AP)
ABOARD THE ASAMA BULLET TRAIN, Japan — When Jeremy Peterson sat in her spacious, reclining seat on this train racing 168 mph toward Nagano, site of the upcoming Winter Olympics, she thought there was only one thing missing: the ground.

"In most trains, you feel you have a connection to the ground. You feel the jolts, the bumps," said the New York actress and dancer, mimicking the fits and starts of the New York City subway. "The biggest difference with this train is that you feel movement, but you don't feel the ground."

More than 2 million visitors are expected to flood Nagano when the Olympic torch is lighted in February. And many of them will be foreigners arriving from Tokyo on this sleek blue-and-white train with a red strip, the latest monument to Japanese high-tech wizardry.

Riding the Asama bullet train is more like being on a plane than a train. Seats are soft and wide, and passengers have more legroom than in the first-class cabin of a jumbo jet. Between cars, there are vending machines and telephones. Uniformed women patrol the wide, carpeted aisles with carts of boxed lunches, sandwiches, beer, soda, snacks, ice cream and whiskey.

The Asama races from Tokyo to Nagano, a distance of about 120 miles, in just 79 minutes. Before the Asama opened last month, the rail trip took three hours. In part because of the expense of tunneling through the mountains on the way to the Japan Alps, the new train and tracks cost $7 billion — $69 million for every minute it shaved off the trip.

The United States's only high-speed rail, Amtrak's Metroliner between New York and Washington, can hit a top speed of 125 mph. But it rides on bumpy tracks that rattle coffee cups and computers. The Asama No. 3's ride is silent and smooth as glass, even as the scenery goes by in a blur. A computerized system in the tracks can sense earthquakes and immediately shut down the train in the event of a strong tremor.

To ensure that everything goes right when the world spotlight turns on Japan for 16 days in February, the nation invested billions to dazzle the world with what it does best: high technology.

In Nagano, Olympic results will be fed as they happen into Info '98, a sophisticated computer system. More than 700 college students will type and scan in data that will be posted immediately on 1,000 computer terminals around Nagano. Journalists, officials and others will have nearly instant access to competitors' times and scores, comparative world records, athlete biographies and live quotes from medalists. And it will be done in Japanese, English and French.

Toyota's revolutionary new "hybrid" cars, which run on electricity and gasoline, will ferry athletes and officials. Vehicles carrying athletes will feature an elaborate satellite navigation system that shows the driver every street in the city, including how much traffic is on which street, and will suggest the fastest route.

About 2,500 cars carrying athletes and important guests will be equipped with an infrared sensor system that will give them priority at traffic lights. Sensors in the cars will send a signal to a traffic-control center, which will make red lights turn to green almost immediately for VIP cars.

Of course, the computer systems could crash, as they did in during the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. And state-of-the-art technology meant to guide traffic could be meaningless if there is no room to maneuver on the tiny, two-lane roads around the ski slopes.

But few worry about the bullet train, which has become a symbol of Japanese ability to make technology convenient. The Sony Walkman was invented in part because Japanese commuter trains were so jampacked that passengers could not read or hold up a newspaper.

Japan has so many kinds of trains, from express to superexpress to bullet; the $25 fast train from the airport begins in the terminal itself and did away with the need to take a $200 cab ride into Tokyo.

It is so unusual for the bullet trains to be even a few minutes late that an electrical problem this week on the Nagano line was huge news. The railway is so proud of its punctuality that it issues partial refunds to passengers if the train arrives late. Those who bought the $66 one-way ticket from Tokyo to Nagano and arrived two hours later than scheduled this week were refunded $34.

Cutting the travel time in half between Tokyo and Nagano is having the same effect that halving the travel time from Washington to New York would have. People going on business can now make it an easy day trip. The Asama bullet train carries 26,000 passengers a day, and that number is expected at least to double for the Olympics.

Some train buffs miss the old engines that took a prettier route through mountain scenery. But Japan stakes a lot of national pride on its high-tech trains, distancing itself from the old iron roosters that still puff around Russia and China.

The train is to Japan what the car is to the United States: the basic means of transportation. That has happened out of necessity. Japan is about the size of Montana but has 126 million people — half the U.S. population. Trains move masses in small areas far more efficiently than autos — just ask anyone who's been caught in one of Tokyo's nightmare traffic jams.

On any day in the Tokyo metropolitan area there are 20 million passengers — more than the population of New York City — on subway and surface trains.

Even the massive public debt accumulated by the ever-expanding rail system does not seem to tarnish the public's love of its safe, graffiti-free, convenient trains. There are double-decker trains, wide ones that run along the ocean with panoramic windows and seats that tilt toward the ocean view. The Seagull, a 2-year-old unmanned train that runs over Rainbow Bridge at the Tokyo Bay waterfront, is a favorite destination for young couples. They make an evening out of riding the train back and forth over the bay, holding hands and looking out the windows.

But the Shinkansen, as the bullet is known in Japanese, is the king of all Japanese trains. The opening of the first one, timed for the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, was considered such a significant moment that it is included in school history texts. In 1991, Japan promised it would produce a better bullet train if Nagano were picked as the site of the '98 Games.

The world's fastest train, France's TGV, speeds along at 187 mph, nearly 20 mph faster than Japan's bullet train. James Spears, a Washington lawyer who has ridden both, said the difference is notable. After making his first bullet train trip this week, Spears said the main difference is that the TGV "goes so fast you get sick looking out the window."

Tokyo Station, the hub of all bullet trains, is where many Olympic visitors will encounter the world's most crowded train system. Shop owners in a 200-store underground arcade attached to the station are getting ready now, preparing maps and menus in English and French. While it might be hard for a first-time visitor to make out the signs for the quick $18 saunas or the $21 body scrub service, a huge poster is being made to direct people to Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald's.

Even though Tokyo Station is by no means the busiest one here, 1.8 million people pass through every day, as do 4,000 trains. The busiest station in the United States is New York City's Pennsylvania Station with about 500,000 passengers; Washington's Union Station handles about 70,000 a day.

Tokyo Station is like a small city. It is filled with clothes shops, sushi restaurants and barber shops. It has a lost-and-found office that collects an average of 310 new items a day, including wads of cash turned in by the incredibly honest Japanese. Two prime ministers have been assassinated here, and there are historic plaques marking both sites.

"I would advise visitors not to go there during rush hour, and I mean it," said Peterson, the American actress. While visiting as a tourist this week, Peterson found herself on a busy commuter train with a man who was sleeping standing up, propped up by the packed crowd.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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