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Fast Food

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Japan’s first high-speed rail link known to English speakers as the “Bullet Train” but to Japanese as the (Tokaido) Shinkansen [東海道新幹線, lit. New Arterial Line], began operating between Tokyo and Osaka almost sixty years ago on October 1, 1964, the same year as the Tokyo Olympic Games. It was the realization of a 1940 proposal for a 200 km/h (120 mph) passenger and freight line between Tokyo and Shimonoseki at the westernmost tip of Japan’s main island, Honshu.

The trains on this first line were called the Zero Series and ran at speeds of up to 200 km/h (125 mph) but with later increases to 220 km/h (135 mph). [Refer to the post Fast Tracking for a more comprehensive history of the development of Japan’s “Bullet Trains”.] The maximum speed of the latest E-Series trains is 320 km/h (200 mph) although 1996 test runs achieved maximum speeds of 443 km/h (275 km/h). For reference, the maximum cruising speed of the Shanghai maglev 431 km/h (268 mph).

Japan is a country in an earthquake zone and one way of lessening the risk this is to isolate track from ground conditions as much as possible by elevating it. It’s expensive but increases track integrity, enhances track security, and saves land for other uses such as agriculture. It’s a good investment for the future. Getting the trains to where people want to disembark also makes elevated track the most cost-effective and least intrusive option in built-up areas.


Having the first Bullet Train link Japan’s two main cities was a no-brainer. The two cities are about 500 km apart, and important in terms of size, industry and culture. The Kansai region that includes Osaka, Koke and Kyoto is the traditional “heart” of Japan while Tokyo has been the capital since 1868. Express trains run direct but limited express trains also stop at Nagoya and Kyoto. The addition of Nagoya means Japan’s three largest cities now linked, and the addition of Kyoto meant Japan’s two major tourist destinations were now linked. This is just how history and geography worked to give Japan not just two main cities but a third and a fourth along the same route people have travelled for centuries. The entire length of the Tokaido Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka (and on to Kobe) is now a single urban unit called a conurbation in which the suburbs of multiple towns merge. Osaka and Tokyo became natural terminii for later routes west, east and north, running the length and breadth of the country. It’s a network.

China’s high-speed rail system had a slow start. It was only 1997 when the average speed of passenger trains was raised to 65 km/h (40.3 mph) but the following year the maximum cruising speed of high speed trains was 160 km/h (99 mph). By 2000 there was about 10,000 km of track for these faster trains, and another 6,500 km was added by 2004. In 2007, the maximum speed of intercity high speed trains was 250 km/h (155 mph) but, even so, there was still the problem of lack of rail capacity and the first dedicated high-speed rail link opened between Beijing and the neighboring city of Tianjin in 2008. By the end of 2022, there was 42,000 km (26,000 mi) of high-speed track, about two thirds the world total.

Beijing’s population of 21.5 million and Tianjin with its population of 16 million is no small city but it was 2011 before the capital and political centre, Beijing, was connected with the economic center of Shanghai (26.32 mil.). Its 1,318-kilometers (819 mi) of high-speed track were constructed in a single phase. This route is also the busiest high-speed service in the world and, with trains running at an average speed of 291.9 km/h (181.4 mph) which is also the world’s fastest. It takes about four and a half hours to travel the 1,300 km between Beijing and Shanghai at a cost of US$78 for a Second Class ticket, $129 for a First Class and $260 for Business. The line connecting Beijing in the north with Guangzhou (pop. 15.3 mil.), Shenzen (12.59 mil.) and Hong Kong in the south was fully open by 2018 and became the world’s longest high-speed rail route, halving travel time. This next better shows the growth of the network.

The Isalmic Hajj is the world’s largest temporary mass migration where, on avarage, about 2,250,000 people converge on the single place of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The week-long holiday that is China’s Mid-Autumn Festival is the longest period of vacation for many, resulting in almost 19 million people on the move by high-speed rail over the course of the week. High-speed rail is the preferred method of transport as flight ticket prices increase and flights are subject to delays. Rail ticket prices are more stable but capacity is still limited and there is high and instant demand as soon as tickets go on sale. People worry about being able to purchase a ticket.

For those who can, booking and paying is simple if you have a Chinese SIM card and Alipay installed on your cellphone. (1) In Alipay, select the RAIL12306 icon, (2) Input start and end stations, (3) Select departure time, paying attention to the travel time and number of stops. In the third image, you can see that around my prefered travel, there was a train every 6–8 minutes but the 16:23 express would arrive about the same time as the 15:52 and 30 minutes before the 16:00 and accordingly had no first-class seats available. (4) Next, choose seat class and (5) Click to pay. From then on, your Passport/ID card is your ticket. There’s no need to show your carriage or seat number at the boarding gate but you might need them later to find your seat.

This is my local station. I will be on the 16:32 D2290 for the Wenzhou South Station to Shanghai Hongqiao Station portion of its route departing Shenzen and terminating in Nantong.

Earlier last week, I was surprised to learn that quiet carriages were only just being introduced. My route didn’t have one.

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Chinese people love to eat, and six or eight people around a table in a restaurant, home or for that matter anywhere where food can be cooked is an ordinary and very accessible pleasure. Being onboard a train at 6:00 PM and travelling at dinnertime is thus a serious inconvenience in need of a solution. High-speed trains of course have attendants trolleying trolleys off drinks, snacks, fruit and so on, but a colleague alerted me to the power of this QR code on the armrest.

The first screen lets you know where the train is, what stations are up ahead and precisely when the train will be arriving and stopping for two minutes. The third option (in the first screenshot) will let you order the on-train trolley food and drinks and an attendant can bring your order to your seat. This makes sense because otherwise, when it passes by, the trolley might no longer have what you wanted. The second screenshot is the list of what’s available. You can see my train, carriage and seat number at the top left of the screen. The item in the third screenshot says Seasonal Fruit and menu item in the fourth screenshot says Online Meal Ordering against a map showing arrival times at upcoming stations.

This is important. The last possible city shown on the Order Ahead list in the second screenshot below is Hangzhou East which is still one hour away from Shanghai. Selecting it will give you a list of restaurants that will deliver to the train station. The fifth, as you can see is KFC and the sixth is a local convenience store chain. Selecting a restaurant will give you the menu and ordering and online payment is the same as any online food ordering transaction. Both stores available that day had branches at Hangzhou East station anyway so the actual delivery journey probably wasn’t by scooter and as perilous and frantic as I’d imagined. Nevertheless, it’s a large station with 15 platforms so you food might be in transit for at least five minutes before it gets to the platform and put onto a trolley and, when it arrives, onto the train and brought to you in your seat.

It’s a simple process involving no new systems or amazing systems technologies. Given the enthusiasm and regularity with which the Chinese people like to eat, I’m not surprised someone saw this business opportunity. Sure, it helps that Chinese people aren’t that fussy about the temperature of food as long as it’s been cooked but the most amazing thing about this system is the assumption that all the elements of the system will work as planned, and that there’l be no delays on the side of the kitchen, the deliverers, or the rail network. It must be a correct assumption because its a viable business getting meals delivered to trains stopping at one of fifteen platforms for two minutes and at intervals of as little as ten minutes. I’ve filed this post under “Performance”.

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