In 1964, Japan amazed the world by introducing the bullet trains, or Shinkansen, between Tokyo and Osaka, possibly the busiest rail corridor in the world. By today’s standards, these trains weren’t high-speed rail (which is commonly defined as 150 miles per hour or more), as their top speeds were just 130 mph. But they were the fastest trains in the world, taking that title from the United States, where the Burlington and Milwaukee had previously vied for number one in the Chicago-Twin Cities corridor.
Oddly, this booklet barely mentions the speed factor, focusing more on the increased capacity of the new line which was built from scratch. The only mention of speed is in a section called “Safety Precautions,” which says that that speeds of 159 mph are “quite feasible” but scheduled speeds would be kept to 125 mph. Another part mentions that the speeds would be increased when “the roadbed of the new line settles down.” In actual practice, the average speed from Tokyo to Osaka was 86 mph (with a top speed of 130), speeded up to 108 mph in 1965 (with a top speed of 137).
Since the Shinkansen began operation just before the 1964 Olympics, the world could hardly fail to take note, and many other countries saw this as a challenge to their technological skills. Americans concerned about the space race and missile gap with the Soviet Union suddenly had another technology to worry about.
By 1964, Americans routinely flew around in jet aircraft at 500 mph, and passenger trains were considered to be on their way out. Yet the bullet trains led Congress to take actions that set the precedent for creating Amtrak six years later.