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Bullet train

Bullet train: heading for 400km per hour

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Faster than a speeding train

The Shinkansen or Bullet Train is one of Japan’s most famous inventions. Japan launched the world’s first high-speed trains almost 40 years ago and today’s fastest Shinkansens can hit over 300km per hour at top speed.

Japan is a long and thin country and most of its land is mountainous. This means that its main urban areas are squeezed along a strip of coast. There is not enough space to have many roads, so train travel is an important means of transport for Japanese workers and trains have to carry a lot of people.

Tokyo and Osaka are two of Japan’s biggest cities and the Shinkansens can cover the 550km journey between them in two hours and 30 minutes. (It is not possible to carry out the whole journey at top speed.)

At least six Shinkansens run between Tokyo and Osaka every hour, arriving on average within six seconds of the scheduled time – pretty precise timing. The trains are 400m long so the platforms have to be very long too.

Maglev trains

The next emerging technology for Shinkansens will enable trains to travel from Tokyo to Osaka in about one hour.

To do that, the train has to travel at 500km per hour, a speed that is impossible for current train technology. So the Japanese have invented a train that doesn’t sit on the tracks, but floats above them.

The latest bullet trains are powered by magnetic levitation or maglev for short. Using electro-magnets, these trains can hover above the tracks, eliminating friction between train and track. One train has already reached a world record speed of 581 km per hour.


If you’ve handled magnets, you know that opposite poles attract and like poles repel each other. It is this scientific principle that makes maglev work. Using magnets to repel each other, there is no physical contact between the track and the train.

The train does not need wheels. It doesn’t need an engine either. Magnetic force is used to push and pull the train along the track, as well as holding it above the track. Two separate sets of electromagnet coils in the track control levitation and propulsion of the train. To do this they interact with huge magnets underneath the train itself.

If a maglev train ran between Dublin and Cork, it would do the trip in about half an hour.

Learn more:
Find out more about Shinkansen and about taking bullet trains

Find out how maglev trains work