How Fast Are Japan’s Bullet Trains and How Do They Work?

Shinkansen Bullet Train in Japan. The Shinkansen is a network of high-speed railway lines in Japan. Since the initial Tokaido Shinkansen opened in 1964 with running speeds of 210 km/h (130 mph).

How Fast Are Japan’s Bullet Trains and How Do They Work?

Key Points

  • Japan’s bullet trains, known as Shinkansen, are among the fastest trains in the world, reaching a maximum speed of 199 mph (320 km/h).
  • Bullet trains in Japan use a complex system of magnets to levitate the train and move it directionally.
  • There are no bullet trains in the United States, but the closest location to ride one is in France, where you can travel from Paris to Rome in about ten hours.
  • Bullet train ticket types in Japan include Green Car (first-class) and Ordinary Car (general seating), with different levels of comfort and flexibility.
  • Japan’s first bullet train began operation in 1964, and since then, the bullet train network has expanded to nine routes across the country.

Japan’s bullet trains, known as Shinkansen, are among the fastest trains in the world. Today, bullet trains in Japan travel at a maximum speed of 199 mph (320 kmh.) Bullet trains are used primarily in Europe and Asia for trips that are less than about 600 miles.

Bullet trains use a complex system of magnets inside the base of the train and beneath the train on U-shaped guideways. The train levitates roughly four inches above the ground. Different magnets in the train guideway push and pull the train to move it directionally.

If you plan on riding the Shinkansen, we have a few suggestions to save you a few dollars on your next bullet train ride in Japan. Let’s jump aboard!

Where Can I Ride a Bullet Train?

Unfortunately, there are no bullet trains in the United States. The lack of population density, federal funding, and car culture combined with an overall lack of agreement about the necessity for high-speed rails doesn’t equate to a promising future for high-speed bullet trains in the U.S.

Since you can’t hop on a bullet train in the U.S., the next closest location is France. You can jump on the Train à Grande Vitesse in Paris and arrive in Rome (approximately 690 miles) about ten hours later.

Japan’s bullet trains stretch (almost) from end to end, north to south. You’ll need to catch a series of bullet trains; there isn’t a single bullet train that goes from top to bottom in Japan. It’s similar to riding a train from New York to Los Angeles; you’ll head to Chicago for a train swap on the first leg of your journey, then jump on another connecting train in Denver that takes you to LA on the second leg.

modern high speed train with motion blur
You can feel the force of Japan’s bullet train when it passes close to you.

How Fast Are Bullet Trains?

Bullet trains do not travel at the same speed that commercial airlines fly. A commercial jet travels at approximately 475-550 mph.

TrainLocationTop Speed (mph)
Shanghai MaglevShanghai, China285.8
CR HarmonyShanghai, China217.4
Intercity-Express 3 (ICE3)Frankfurt, Germany198.8
Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV)France198.8
JR ShinkansenTokyo, Japan198.8 

Bullet train top speeds are a bit of marketing mixed in with actual performance. The top speeds listed in the chart above are daily operational performance values. Railways will also present “best test times” that don’t reflect standard travel speeds. Japan is testing its next-generation bullet train, clocking in at more than 370 mph.

Bullet Train Ticket Types

Japan’s bullet trains aren’t necessarily a non-stop joyride. The Shinkansen has three different categories of tickets. The travel time is different depending on which type of ticket you purchase.

  • Local trains will stop at every single train station. If you catch a bullet train (Kodama) from Tokyo to Kyoto, it will take about three hours and forty minutes to travel 225 miles. Bring a book to read while you work through fifteen train station stops. A local train is the cheapest option.
  • The semi-fast bullet train (Hikari) stops at roughly half of the train stations, so while its speed is the same as the Kodama service, it will take about two hours and forty minutes to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto. This route has eleven potential stops, but each train sometimes stops at different stations during each run. You’ll have some time to burn, so it’s a good time to look out the window and listen to some tunes. Do keep the earbud volume low and it’s a cultural faux pas to have loud music playing.
  • The “fastest” train with the fewest train station stops is the Nozomi with four stops. You’ll arrive in Kyoto in about two hours and fifteen minutes. The train with the fewest stops is the most expensive option.

How Much Does It Cost to Ride Japan’s Bullet Train?

We have good news. You can save money on Japan’s bullet train tickets if you plan ahead. Purchase a Japan Rail (JR) tourist ticket from abroad and have it shipped to your home address. You’ll need to bring the paperwork with you to Japan.

DaysGreen CarOrdinary Car
7-Day$303.36 (¥44.810)$227.51 (¥33,610)
14-Day$489.47 (¥72,310$358.49 (¥52,960)
21-Day$620.51 (¥91,670$448.11 (¥66,200)

Green Car

Consider a Green Car JR Pass if you’re seeking a first-class train travel experience. A Green Car is similar to a first-class ticket. Green Cars have more space, Wi-Fi, fewer passengers, and are slightly quieter. Green Car tickets require a reservation, so you must go into the JR office at the train station to make a seat reservation. It’s not a big deal. The line moves pretty fast and the ticket agents can communicate in many different languages.

Ordinary Car

An Ordinary Car is similar to general seating on an American plane. You’ll have less legroom, more noise, and higher passenger density. An Ordinary Car JR Pass is significantly cheaper than a Green Car Pass but has a lot of flexibility. Bypass the ticket office and head straight for the train you want to catch. Grab an unreserved seat.

You can swing by the ticket office and make a seat reservation for an Ordinary Car. The Ordinary Car reserved seats may be sold out. An Ordinary Car is fine for off-peak traveling, but this means no traveling on Monday, Friday, Sunday afternoon, early morning, or early evening, as those are peak times.

It’s not uncommon for Ordinary Cars reserved seating to be sold out. If you don’t have a reserved ticket, you’ll stand at the train car’s rear until a seat becomes available. It’s pretty standard and you won’t be the only person standing.

Plan Ahead 

The key to securing the maximum cost savings is planning ahead and having a rough travel itinerary nailed down. If we wanted to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto round trip, we’re looking at roughly $190 for a green car or $400 for Hiroshima from Tokyo without the JR Pass. The cost of two trips without the JR Pass exceeds the price of a shorter JR Pass. If the math works for you, it’s a great way to save money.

With a JR Pass, you can ride any of Japan’s bullet trains without incurring an additional cost. There are a few restrictions, so read the fine print before purchasing. You’ll need to enter Japan on a tourist visa.

You must stop by a JR train station office to activate the JR Pass. You can do this at Narita, Haneda airports, or any major JR train station.

How Long Have Japanese Bullet Trains Been in Operation?

On October 1, 1964, Japan’s first bullet train began operation between Tokyo and Osaka. The “dream super-express” decreased the travel time from Tokyo to Osaka from seven to three hours. Japan’s first bullet train traveled at a maximum speed of around 137 mph.

During the past fifty years, Japan’s bullet train routes have expanded from one to nine routes. Today, you can ride a series of Japan’s bullet trains from Kagoshima-Chuo (south) to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto in the north. The bullet train is working on a northern expansion into the Sapporo area. The development completion is targeted for 2030.

High Speed Bullet Train Tokaido Shinkansen and Fuji mountain with rice field, Fuji, Shizuoka, Japan
The above photo shows Japan’s bullet train with Mt. Fuji in the background.

How Do Japanese Bullet Trains Work?

When the train departs the station, it’s under the energy of steel wheels with rubber tires. When the train reaches roughly 93 mph, the train is traveling fast enough to levitate on the guideway. The wheels retract and the wheel doors automatically close, like on an airplane.

Let’s take a look at how all of this occurs.

Maglev Trains

Superconducting magnetic trains are called maglev trains. Maglev trains are used all over the world as bullet trains. Maglev trains are popular due to their speed, decreased noise, and cheaper operational cost than traditional trains.

A maglev train uses superconducting magnets to levitate the train above a train guideway. Embedded in the guideways are metal coils wrapped into a figure eight configuration. The metal coils create an electromagnet. Superconducting electromagnets, called bogies, are built into the train body.

How Does the Train Start and Stop Moving?

When Japan’s bullet trains leave the station, they aren’t levitating and use steel wheels with rubber tires. When the train reaches roughly 93 mph, the train is traveling fast enough to levitate above the guideway. The wheels are retracted and wheel well doors automatically close, just like an airplane.

How Does the Train Levitate?

Superconducting magnets inside the train push away (up) from the same polarity magnets embedded in the train guideway. The opposing magnetic forces lift the train by four inches and cause it to levitate above the guideway. The train has N polarity magnets facing down and the guideway has N polarity magnets facing up.

How Does the Train Move Forward?

Superconducting magnets in the train’s body (bogies) are crucial in moving the train. The magnets alternate between N and S polarization. The magnetic force of the superconducting magnets in the train interacts with the magnetic pull of propulsion coils in the guideway.

The polarity of the propulsion coils switches between N and S to force the train to move forward. The current frequency of the propulsion coils regulates the speed of the train.

The bogies, embedded near the outside of the train body, are attracted to their opposite magnetic force (north to south) and then repelled from the same magnetic forces (north to north) as the train moves forward.

Shanghai Maglev Train Station,China
A maglev train is ready for passengers in Shanghai, China.

How Does the Train Move Side to Side?

Magnets on the side of the guide rails dynamically interact with the magnets on the side of the train to keep the train centered on the tracks. If the train is too close to the end of the guideway, one set of magnets will push the train, and the other set will pull the train to either side.

The bullet train will automatically “lean into” curves. Leaning into curves allows the train to travel even faster by negating the need to slow down to keep the train wheels on the track.

Wrapping Up

Japan’s bullet trains travel at approximately 200 mph. The trains are levitated and propelled through a guideway using magnets. Levitation allows the train not to use wheels when operating above about 93 mph. The elimination of wheels reduces friction and noise. A ride on Japan’s bullet train is faster and quieter than any train ride available in the United States.

Frequently Asked Questions

How fast is Japan's bullet train?

Most Shinkansen bullet trains travel approximately 186 mph, but a few lines reach 200 mph. In 1964, Japan’s first bullet train traveled at about 136 mph.

Why doesn't the United States have bullet trains?

Primarily, the U.S. doesn’t have bullet trains due to money and politics. Most politicians aren’t interested in engaging in a crazy expensive construction project that won’t come to short-term fruition. Japan currently has bullet train projects in construction that won’t be completed until the mid-2030s and other projects in early development that won’t be completed until the mid-2040s. In addition to politics, the U.S. is both a driving and flying culture. Neither auto manufacturing companies nor airlines want the culture to gravitate towards a train culture.

Why is the Japanese bullet train so fast?

Japan’s Shinkansen bullet trains use magnetic levitation (maglev) to raise the train above a “track.” The bullet train is propelled through a series of magnets in the train and into a guideway. The train begins moving away from the train station using steel wheels with rubber tires. When the train reaches approximately 93 mph, the train starts to levitate, and the wheels retract into the train. The lack of friction from wheels allows the bullet train to move faster. Older trains, not bullet trains, have speed limitations based on wheel slippage. If an older train moves too fast, the wheels are spinning so fast that they begin to slip on the tracks.

Which country has faster bullet trains, China or Japan?

China has a faster operational train. In Shanghai China, the bullet train operates at 285.8 mph. Japan has tested, but not put into operation, a superconducting maglev train that reached 375 mph.

What is the top speed of a U.S. bullet train?

The Acela train reaches speeds up to 150 mph in Rhode Island and Connecticut.

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