Hurtling along the ground at a speed of 200mph is, above all else, really weird. The landscape races by in a blur, and your ears pop as though you’re on a plane taking off. I imagine this is what riding on HS2 will feel like in 2063 when – if – they ever manage to build the thing.
You’d think from the brouhaha currently unfolding around Britain’s beleaguered attempt to create a high-speed railway of its own that HS2 was some kind of ultra-modern undertaking – that there was no blueprint.
But I’ve just spent the last three weeks racing around Japan on the Shinkansen, the high-speed railway built in 1964. Even back then, it travelled at around 130mph, with more modern trains now achieving speeds of 200mph.
To put this in context, a train from Tokyo to Osaka takes around two-and-a-half hours and costs ¥14,520 (£80 at the current exchange rate, and yes, prices are fixed). The distance between the two stations is roughly 500 kilometres: more than double the distance between Manchester and London.
As for that journey, well, a glance at the travel comparison site Omio tells me that a two-hour train from London Euston to Manchester Piccadilly tomorrow could cost me anywhere between £70 and £185.
The Shinkansen doesn’t just serve Japan’s principal metropolis, either. Kyoto to Hiroshima? It travels 335km in an hour-and-a-half, all for ¥11,740 (£65). A trip home from London to see my family in Birmingham this weekend, meanwhile: a mere 163km in just under two hours – for £95.
Did I mention the WiFi on the Shinkansen is free, or that it actually works?
Looking away from Google Maps and Trainline for one second, the picture becomes grimmer still. Japan spent an estimated ¥1,777bn (adjusted for inflation) on the Shinkansen, the equivalent of £9.79bn.
The bullet train was immediately profitable and remains so, generating approximately ¥422bn of passenger revenue in the 2022 fiscal year, up from around ¥258bn in the preceding year for East Japan Railways (JR East).
Back to HS2: in June last year it was estimated our own high-speed train project would cost £45bn, but recent reports suggest that could be £8bn off – and that’s just the initial London to Birmingham stretch of the line, by the way.
Boris Johnson estimated the entire scheme could come to £100bn in total, just before he canned the eastern leg of the line to trim costs. Money has very obviously been wasted: A Freedom of Information Act request revealed more than £1m of the budget has been spent on printing.
Costs have ballooned so much that Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt are reportedly floating the idea of scrapping the line entirely, according to Whitehall sources.
Whether it’s our own fault or not, the long and short of it is that rail travel in Britain is embarrassing. We built the railways but are being outclassed on multiple fronts abroad. Between strikes, inflated prices, and frequent delays (the average delay for the Shinkansen is less than a minute every year), we are crying out for high-speed rail travel.
But at the speed we’re going you won’t be getting that ear-popping sensation this side of the planet any time soon.