Photo/IllutrationWest Japan Railway Co.’s 500 Series Shinkansen. (Provided by West Japan Railway Co.)

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After the recent two-and-half-year stint of the “Evangelion train,” and with the debut of its high-speed “Hello Kitty” sequel imminent, the 500 Series Shinkansen’s focus is firmly on fun.

It was not always that way. The model was introduced to great fanfare in March 1997, hailed as the “fastest-ever Shinkansen,” traveling at 300 kph and capable of topping 320 kph. Its technical achievements wowed the world, but just 13 years later, the 500 Series’ time as a “Nozomi” high-speed service train on the Tokaido Shinkansen Line came to an end.

It was the shortest tenure among all the Tokaido Shinkansen's Nozomi bullet trains. So what went wrong?

'MAVERICK' TRAIN

Developed by West Japan Railway Co. (JR West), the 500 Series first ran on the company’s Sanyo Shinkansen Line, completing the journey between Shin-Osaka and Hakata in Fukuoka in just 2 hours and 17 minutes.

Having declined an offer to co-develop the train, Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai) introduced it on its Tokaido Shinkansen Line from November 1997, stretching the 500 Series’ reach all the way to Tokyo.

The train broke the five-hour barrier on the Tokyo to Hakata route for the first time, reducing the journey time to 4 hours and 49 minutes. When train schedules were revised in October 1998, the Nozomi service was performed by 500 Series trains traveling between Tokyo and Hakata on seven round-trips daily.

The model was at its zenith, but the journey ahead was far from smooth.

“The 500 Series was just a pain in the neck for JR Tokai,” noted railway journalist Jun Umehara.

The train had been beset with problems that annoyed the Tokaido line’s operator, Umehara added.

JR Tokai’s headaches included the fact that the 500 Series’ capacity for 1,324 passengers in 16 cars was one more seat than the 700 Series, which made its debut in 1999, and the 300 Series, which both carried 1,323 passengers.

At the start of the project, JR West tried to alter the 500 Series’ design to make its quota of seats match the 300 and 700 Series by fitting only one washroom and a smaller toilet in each car, but the efforts did not bear fruit.

In the end, JR West was unable to equalize the seating capacity of the 500 Series and that of its counterpart models. The number of seats in some of the cars of the respective trains did not correspond with one another, causing problems in interoperability with 300 and 700 Series trains.

JR Tokai prioritizes its rolling stock to make it compatible with existing Shinkansen trains, according to the railway company, and the stance made the 500 Series a tough sell.

Equalizing the number of seats and speed of each rolling stock would have enabled the train operator to replace train cars more easily if faults made it necessary. From that point of view, the 500 Series was a “maverick” in JR Tokai’s eyes, and did not meet its needs.

SLEEK SHAPE’S DRAWBACKS

Due to its distinctive long nose, the 500 Series has only one door on each side of its end cars, compared with two on other models. The difference in design prevents some passengers from climbing aboard immediately after it arrives at a station if they are waiting in the area where the doors of other types of Shinkansen train pull in.

Making announcements asking passengers to move because the 500 Series has fewer train doors than other Shinkansen trains was considered a troublesome task for railway staff.

Furthermore, its characteristic cylindrical form, created a claustrophobic feeling for window-seat passengers with its rounded walls that curved inward toward the ceiling.

Motors installed in all its cars to add speed also drew criticism due to their “huge electric power consumption,” according to Umehara.

When JR West was developing the 500 Series, the company invited JR Tokai to introduce the model, according to an individual close to JR West who is familiar with the business circumstances of that time.

However, JR Tokai declined the offer for financial reasons.

Developing the 500 Series proved to be too costly for a company that required extensive rolling stock to meet its huge passenger traffic demand.

In the end, JR West went ahead alone and produced only nine 500 Series models.

Shortly after that, as soon as the 700 Series and the N700 Series, both jointly developed by JR West and JR Tokai, arrived on the scene, the number of 500 Series services on the Tokaido section was reduced, and operations on the Nozomi service ended in February 2010.

Today, the 500 Series runs at a reduced speed of 285 kph on the Sanyo Shinkansen Line as the eight-car Kodama Shinkansen, with the remaining disused cars having been scrapped.

SPEED DEMON

Although the 500 Series equaled the world speed record at the time for a train at 300 kph in operation on the Sanyo line, and was recognized by Guinness World Records for the highest average speed on the route from Shin-Osaka to Hakata, it had the disadvantage of not being allowed to run at its top speed on the Tokaido line.

Hiroshi Suda, a former JR Tokai president and author of the book “The Tokaido Shinkansen Line 50-nen" (50 years of the Tokaido Shinkansen Line), published by Transportation News Co., pointed out in the tome that “the Tokaido Shinkansen Line has harsher track conditions, with more sharp curves and other features, compared with those of the Sanyo Shinkansen Line, which prevent the Shinkansen bullet trains from running at the maximum speed of 300 kph.”

Railway writer Eiji Ikeguchi described the 500 Series as “a speedster that failed to become a central player among the Shinkansen bullet trains” in his book “Zannen na Tetsudo Sharyo-tachi" (Unfortunate rolling stock) published by Ikaros Publications Ltd.

The 500 Series was created with incredible capabilities, but it could not fully live up to its potential due to a number of factors. It has been dubbed “an unfortunate rolling stock,” despite the fact that “it reached a pinnacle” of sorts, according to the book.

“I think the 500 Series is a train vehicle that will very likely leave its mark on global railway history as (an example of excellent) rolling stock developed in the 20th century,” said former JR West employee Eiji Nakatsu, 73, one of the train’s developers.

Nakatsu has received requests to give talks around the world, including the United States, Britain and Germany, about the train's development.

The 500 Series has remained fascinating to railways buffs across the globe, not least because of its distinctive shape inspired by nature, as well as its quest to reach the world’s fastest speed.

TRAINS VS. PLANES

Famed not just for its speed and sleek beauty, the 500 Series is also renowned at its parent company for being its saving grace.

After the privatization of Japanese National Railways in 1987, JR West found itself in dire straits as many passengers abandoned the Sanyo Shinkansen service in favor of air travel, which was faster and often cheaper.

“Winning back passengers from airlines by speeding up the bullet train was the major challenge for JR West to meet,” recalled Nakatsu, who lives in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture.

At that time, bullet trains traveled at a maximum speed of 210 kph, linking Shin-Osaka and Hakata stations in 3 hours and 44 minutes from 1975 when the Sanyo Shinkansen Line was completed.

In 1989, the “Grand Hikari” service debuted, boasting a top speed of 230 kph and slashing journey times on the same route to 2 hours and 49 minutes.

But the 500 Series easily outdid even those impressive speeds, further cutting the travel time to 2 hours and 17 minutes, and it became JR West’s trump card in the battle with airlines to win passengers.

INSPIRED BY NATURE

Another key to the 500 Series’ popularity lies in its distinctive fighter jet-like nose measuring 15 or so meters in length, “a design that enables its vehicle to easily cut through walls of air even while running at ultrafast speed,” according to JR West.

It was not always meant be that way, however. The final form of the 500 Series left the rolling stock unrecognizable from that of its test train, the “Win 350.” Drastic design changes had to be made because of a noise problem that emerged during the development of the fastest bullet train up to that point.

When a train enters a tunnel at high speed, a compressed wave generates a loud blast at the other end.

More than 50 percent of the Sanyo Shinkansen Line’s tracks are covered by tunnels, and bullet train test runs are conducted in the middle of the night.

“We received a barrage of complaints from local residents about the noise making their babies wake up and cry, or their windows rattling,” said Nakatsu.

The solution to the problem emerged in a surprising place.

Nakatsu, a keen birdwatcher, found inspiration in the “kawasemi,” or common kingfisher, that dives into water at breakneck speed to grab its prey.

After a series of experiments, Nakatsu found that the elongated shape of the common kingfisher’s bill reduced the resistance that occurred when the bird hit the water.

It was a “lightbulb moment” which led to Nakatsu coming up with the idea of a “long nose” for the 500 Series.

The 500 Series is also indebted to another of nature’s intricate designs: owl feathers.

A loud aerodynamic noise generated from air hitting pantographs attached to the 500 Series train was also a major issue that arose during test runs.

To solve the problem, Nakatsu studied the owl, known for its near-silent flight. No other bird flies as stealthily.

Nakatsu borrowed a stuffed owl from Osaka Tennoji Zoo in Osaka’s Tennoji Ward to study its feathers. He then identified the secret of the silent hunter.

He found that comb-like serrations on the edge of owl’s wing feathers break up and diffuse the air that creates a swooshing sound.

Taking his cue from the wisdom of nature, Nakatsu applied the principle of owl’s feathers to pantographs, and successfully reduced the noise generated from them.

JR West described the form of the 500 Series as “the result of an integration of beauty that symbolizes improvement of aerodynamic functions and reducing noise.”

NEW DIRECTION

The story of the 500 Series has taken a colorful twist in the current decade. First, to mark Railway Day on Oct. 14, 2012, the Sanyo Shinkansen Line’s official hero Kansenger, a character designed in the image of the 500 Series, was born.

In 2014, the Plarail Car was introduced in the 500 Series, where children can play with railway toys. A “driver's cabin” for children was also set up in the Plarail Car.

Then, in 2015, the special 500 Type Eva bullet train was introduced to celebrate two major landmarks in Japanese technological and cultural life: the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Sanyo Shinkansen Line, and the 20th anniversary of the first broadcast of classic anime series “Neon Genesis Evangelion.”

Its run was extended by a year due to popular demand, and it eventually made its final journey on May 13, 2018.

The “Evangelion” train proved so successful that no sooner had its anime adventure ended, than the train was refurbished and repurposed as the “Hello Kitty” Shinkansen.

Covered in images and design features depicting the world-famous character, the new-look train will take to the tracks from June 30.