The Future of the Shinkansen

I recently did an interview with Sarah Sieloff about the future of the shinkansen in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and some of what we discussed featured in an article, ‘Japan’s Bullet Trains Are Hitting a Speed Bump’ in Bloomberg. The article is very well written and I recommend reading it. I’d thought I’d do a post adding some further discussion on the issues covered.

It is very difficult to make predictions about what will happen to the shinkansen in the future as a result of COVID-19 as the world doesn’t operate in bubbles (other than the ones some have to live in during lockdowns). There are other factors that will influence what happens to the shinkansen. Japan is already experiencing depopulation and there are no signs that this trend will end for a long time yet. This, I suspect, will have the greatest impact on the shinkansen. But COVID-19 could – and the word ‘could’ is important – alter the way depopulation impacts the shinkansen. I have previously written about how the shinkansen was likely to fare well from depopulation as more and more people (even if the overall population of the country fell) were moving to big cities. This is great for shinkansen-operating companies as they can focus more and more on such services, less on conventional trains and possibly even less on intervening stations on the shinkansen network. But, if (and it’s a big ‘if’), people no longer have to work in big and don’t have the desire to as it’s seen as better not to be in cramped cities, then more may choose to live in smaller provincial cities. This could still have benefits to the shinkansen – so long as face-to-face meetings still have to take place from time-to-time. A move to more video conferencing, however, could undermine this.

As is noted in the Bloomberg article, the COVID-19 pandemic has come at a critical time in relation to the discussions about the Linear Shinkansen. Already facing problems due to a dispute with Shizuoka prefecture about its environmental impact, there are now significant questions about the need for such a line (the questions already existed, but have grown louder) if there is going to be less demand for travel between cities such as Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. There is a real possibility that the project will stall in Japan – but come to fruition in other countries that look to replace plane travel with a super-fast train service. But if we all stick with Zoom, Teams, and other online meetings, will there be a need for such services anywhere? This is the big unknown. Is COVID-19 going to continue for a long time (at the time of writing in October 2020, it has been having a huge impact on the planet, and yet, officially at least, there have been less than 40 million cases – out of a world population of 7 billion – that’s not even 1% of the world’s population) or will a vaccine be found? What will happen if a vaccine is found soon? Will people live and work with the new normal or will there be a return to the old norm (albeit with some tweaks?). I strongly suspect the latter. This could be particularly in the case of Japan – where home space makes working from home even harder than many of us are finding it in other countries. And, if the COVID-19 pandemic does end soon, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics could go ahead largely as planned in 2021 and we may see Japan firmly back on the tourist map again – which would be a further boost to the shinkansen.

In such scenarios, after a bumpy period, I would expect that the shinkansen will also return to some form of normality.

You can find out more about my research on the shinkansen here.

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