I was heading south along Japan's Pacific coast by Shinkansen, rice paddies and snow-blanketed cities passing by in a blur, when the train attendant announced our speed over the intercom: 300km/h. "Are you enjoying the ride?" she asked.
Truth is, I wasn't. I had signed up for a three-hour test run of the redesigned Akita Shinkansen, which links Tokyo to Japan's northern reaches. For 3,000 guests, this was the chance to see state-of-the-art rolling stock in action weeks before it would join East Japan Railway’s [JR East] high-speed line. But the demonstration was, to put it mildly, uneventful. From the cities and villages we passed, the red-and-silver cars barrelling along the tracks in the midday glare would have been a sight to behold. From my seat in car number 15, however, the novelty was lost on me.
On paper, the new Akita Shinkansen represents a triumph of innovation. The long, duck-billed nose cones at the front and rear minimise the boom as the train passes through tunnels. Shock absorbers soften bumps and offset the sideways pull along curves. Even the pantographs, connecting cars to high-voltage cables overhead, were designed to optimise the train's aerodynamics. The cumulative effect is one of comfort, something my fellow passengers would agree with: on the return leg, most of them were slumped in their seats, fast asleep.
I had gone along for the ride wanting to be impressed. The train did seem to run more smoothly and quietly and to take curves with greater ease. Still, I found it hard to get excited about a new version of something that wasn’t a technological leap forward. It didn't help that JR East was making a big deal about speed. Trains on the Tokyo-Akita line already travel at 275km/h along part of its route. Increasing that to 300km/h will shorten a nearly four-hour trip by a mere five minutes. A year from now the company will nudge the trains to 320km/h, shaving a few more minutes off the trip. JR East's president, Tetsuro Tomita, has said that every minute counts when you're competing against aeroplanes.
Saving a few minutes hardly seems worth the years of development and billions of yen devoted to the project. I wondered: had a leader in one of the world's most sophisticated transport markets fallen prey to small thinking?
As we pulled up to the station platform at the end of our roundtrip journey, I had a change of heart. Incremental improvements are the bane of headline writers but when you're building a train that will carry passengers at breakneck speeds, safety is what matters most. Here, Japan has an unassailable record. The country has the world’s busiest high-speed railway lines. In the nearly half century since the Shinkansen began service, there hasn't been a single crash, even with the typhoons and earthquakes that frequently hammer the archipelago. Only once has a train derailed – in 2004 when a magnitude 6.8 quake struck – but there were no casualties. Having guests fall asleep during the Akita Shinkansen’s demonstration runs was, in fact, a vote of confidence.
In this business, lofty ambition can be costly. Consider the high-speed train wreck in China two years ago that left 40 dead and some 200 others injured. That accident came amid China's aggressive push to build the world's biggest high-speed rail network and to sell others on Chinese railway technology. So maybe modest progress and all the agonising over details that comes with it isn't so bad. After all, small improvements add up.
Kenji Hall is Monocle's Asia editor at large.