A Japanese who had trains in his blood

Hideo Shima (Osaka, May 20, 1901 – Tokyo, March 18, 1998)

The British invented the train, the French have been setting the speed records for locomotives for fifty years, but the Japanese built the first super-fast train connection.

Their first shinkansen (literally: new main line), nicknamed 'the bullet train', already ran at high speed between Tokyo and Osaka in 1964, before there was even a TGV or an HST in Europe.

It was one man, Hideo Shima, who conceived and constructed this train in the 1950s. But when the government officially opened the line, he was not invited to the ceremony.

Hideo Shima was born in 1902 as the son of a chief engineer in the Japanese Railways. After his engineering studies at the University of Tokyo, he was able to work for the railways in 1925 as a designer of locomotives.

In 1951 a train caught fire somewhere and although the cause was due to the neglect of the track during the war, Shima accepted all responsibility and resigned.

By the mid-1950s, the train connection between the megacities of Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka was irrevocably closed. You had engineers who wanted to improve the existing lines and you had those who wanted to build a completely new railway.

The then-president of the railway brought Shima back in to tie the knot and immediately appointed him vice-president.

Shima envisioned a new train, with new tracks that were designed for high speed and did not jolt the train back and forth.

Air-cooled carriages with closed windows, as in an airplane, powered by a series of electric motors mounted on several carriages, and not by a single locomotive.

Incidentally, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics were coming up; the Games that were supposed to show what Japan was capable of after the atomic bombs. In 1958, Shima presented the plan to the Japanese government, which was somewhat surprised at the amount of 540 million euros involved in the works.

An insane amount of money for a Japan that has just risen from the ruins.

The ministers thought there was nothing better than to send Shima himself to the World Bank for a loan. And there they said they could not provide money to support an 'experimental' project. The word 'experimental' had really put Shima on his toes.

He patiently explained who he was, what he did and how much experience he had, that he had trains in his blood genetically and that his bullet train was a carefully calculated project with an emphasis on safety. The gentlemen of the World Bank were impressed and granted a substantial loan.

Unfortunately, someone on Shima's team had miscalculated. As the project progressed, it turned out that the very expensive plans were twice as expensive as planned.

Not only did 500 kilometers of new railway lines have to be built, but they also required the construction of 3000 bridges and 67 tunnels. The big boss of Japan's railways resigned and Shima went with him. The math blunder was their responsibility.

So it was that the mastermind behind the shinkansen – the technical father – and his boss, the political father, were not invited to the opening ceremony in 1964. Friendly engineers showed the two men around unofficially afterwards.

Years later, French engineers turned up at Shima's in Tokyo, looking for a solution for their saturated Paris-Lyon train connection. It would take until 1981 before the Train à Grande Vitesse or TGV raced towards Lyon at 270 kilometers per hour.

Where the shinkansen drove 200 kilometers per hour in the early days – double what was common at the time – it now has a speed of more than 300 kilometers per hour. Just like the French TGV and the German ICE. In normal service then.

The French world speed record is now close to 600.

The government later appointed Shima president of the National Space Development Agency, which launched seven rockets into space during his reign. He did not retire from that position until 1977, the year in which the tough man turned 75.

In between, he received the highest international awards for an engineer: first an American, then a British and only much later, in 1995, the Japanese Order of Cultural Merit. He passed away in 1998 at the age of 96.