Where is Our Old Man Thunder?

A plaque of Shinji Sogo, who is considered the man most responsible for the bullet train, is located on the end of the platform at Tokyo Central Station.

Guest blog by: Ken Prendergast

Throughout history, there have been leaders who broke down barriers of culture, special interests, fear and ignorance to unite diverse people and powers toward a common goal. Many of these leaders have since faded into anonymity while their physical creations have stood tall.

In my own state of Ohio, there was Alfred Kelly, Cleveland’s first mayor and later Ohio Canal Commissioner who nearly bankrupted the young state by building a network of canals (and later, railroads). The extensive transportation networks he espoused transformed the state into an economic powerhouse that has since stagnated for want of similar leaders.

A century later, native Iowan Thomas MacDonald became the father of America’s national highway system through various roles, including as the first director of the federal Bureau of Public Roads in 1919. His anger over the Midwest’s roads being impassable eight months out of the year is a big reason why America now has the world’s most extensive paved highway network.

But when such leaders did not emerge to give life to a vision, success was not possible. “The individual who fails to vision the importance of the task has no moral right to hold a position of authority in its performance,” MacDonald wrote in 1919. That was something else these leaders had in common – their visions did not become reality at the mere snap of their fingers. It required immense battles that often are as unappreciated as the leaders who had fought them.

Such a leader emerged in Japan more than five decades ago. In 1964 Japan woke up the world, but not enough people in America, with its Bullet Train. It was a startling new vision for passenger rail which gave the industry a second life worldwide. Well, almost worldwide.

Starting something big and new is difficult enough. But taking something old and revolutionizing it in a country devastated by war, dominated by tradition and influenced by America’s decision to go in a different direction by sacrificing rails for roads and runways was harder still. The man who pushed Japan to embrace the bullet train was Shinji Sogo, nicknamed “Old Man Thunder” for his explosive temper.

For anyone interested in passenger trains, political advocacy, or both, the 1997 book Old Man Thunder; Father of The Bullet Train is required reading. Its author, Bill Hosokawa, drew on his expertise as a writer for Reader’s Digest covering the start of the Shinkansen bullet train. Although he never met Sogo, then president of the Japanese National Railways (JNR), Hosokawa later met Sogo’s children in America and was given access to their memories and records of the man who dared to be brash in a nation where conformity is often revered. Indeed, Sogo’s motto was “Nothing is impossible.”

Sogo was so convinced of the righteousness of his cause that he pressed ahead despite the project costing nearly twice his original estimate of 200 billion yen. He pressed ahead because he felt the project would help catapult Japan’s still-delicate post-war civilian economy into the ranks of the world’s powers. As hard as it is for many Americans to imagine today, Japan’s non-military economy was frail and backward in the 1950s and 60s. Indeed, Sogo grew up in a Japan where feudalism reigned, the emperor was considered a God, and innovation was not always welcomed.

He and his closest confidants at JNR weren’t even invited to sit amongst the nation’s top dignitaries at the inauguration events at Tokyo and Osaka. Those who knew him said he did not seek notoriety, however.

Starting on Oct. 1, 1964, the centers of these cities were suddenly a mere four hours apart. A year later the trip time was cut to three hours, or less than half the time of the fastest conventional trains on the 320-mile old Tokaido rail line which was being overwhelmed by passenger and freight traffic in Japan’s post-war boom years.

The bullet trains were revolutionary in so many ways. They had no locomotives. To achieve faster and smoother acceleration, each car on the train had an electric motor fed by pantographs atop every other car to contact the overhead wires. There were control cabs at both ends of the trains so the 16-car trains could quickly reverse direction for return trips. The trains themselves were designed with an aerodynamic appearance, looking like nothing that had ever plied the rails before. The Hikari trains’ bullet-point noses led to their enduring nickname.

The infrastructure was unique, too. Construction actually started in 1940 but was halted as the war turned against Japan. It was Japan’s first standard-gauge rail line, with the rails set 4 feet, 8½ inches apart. Japan was physically and emotionally connected to its beloved narrow-gauge tracks, but the wider-gauge trains were proven to be more stable at high speeds. The Shinkansen Tokaido route was also a completely new right of way with no at-grade crossings. It hosted only lightweight high-speed trains – no heavy freight trains, no multi-stop commuter trains, not even regular passenger trains. This was important for the trains to be fast, reliable, safe and smooth-riding. Bullet trains became known for their amazing punctuality – and safety. Trains were equipped with advanced signal systems that halt the trains if the driver ignored a signal or an earthquake tripped a seismometer. Despite many expansions since and six billion passengers carried, there has never been a fatality on the bullet train system due to collisions or derailments.

Ridership on the initial bullet train line soon proved Sogo and his staff right. It was a phenomenal success, attracting 100 million passengers in less than three years. Today during a typical morning or afternoon rush hour, the passenger equivalent of four fully loaded jumbo jetliners leave Tokyo Station every six minutes, and a like amount leave Osaka Station in the same time frame. More than 23,000 passengers per hour per direction are carried between Tokyo and Osaka, making this the world’s busiest high-speed line. This success pumped new life into a tired national rail system that Japan increasingly considered as inconsistent with its desire to be a world-class economic power. Many viewed America’s discarding of railroads for highways and airports as a better model. Yet Japan produced no petroleum domestically, unlike America which was still the world’s largest petroleum producer in the 1950s.

When Sogo and his team of advisors and engineers launched the bullet train project, they did so with surprisingly little support from the general public, increasingly militant labor unions, the Diet (Japan’s parliament) and even within the JNR. The bullet train was sometimes used as political weapon in intense political rivalries, something that Americans have become all too familiar with in recent years. Sogo’s first mission was to build support within JNR and among the public – a mission he regarded as his most difficult.

In 1954, a year before Sogo took over, JNR created a five-year improvement plan. It included only 12 billion yen for modernizing the old, crowded Tokaido Line between Tokyo and Osaka. It was argued the railroad system needed only modest safety improvements because its days were numbered. Sogo was one of the few who believed rails would continue to be the nation’s dominant mode of transport.

Under Sogo, a team of engineers began researching development of the Shinkansen. Because many in the public and among JNR’s own executives considered the project to be “nonsense,” Sogo had the engineering team members work out of their homes so a feasibility study could be secretly written. Even some of the engineering team considered their work as a led by a “stubborn old man pursuing a fantasy.” Sogo replaced those at JNR who did not support him, including his director of construction who was replaced by the brilliant engineer Hideo Shima, JNR’s director of technology.

To win over powerful members of the Diet, he often called them at home in the early morning or late in the evening to increase the chances of speaking with them. It didn’t always work. One powerful conservative faction leader refused to speak with Sogo. So Old Man Thunder waited outside the Diet leader’s home in the morning to speak with him on his way to work. The first few times, the Diet leader rudely brushed past Sogo, saying only “I have no time for you today.”

But Sogo’s persistence and assurances of competent management of the project helped him overcome the intense political rivalries. The government committed the nation to fund the project, initially through loans that could not be easily rescinded. So when the actual cost of the project became known, other funding was arranged including from the World Bank led by the United States. He also kept the project moving forward through calculated uses of his fiery temper.

That fearsome temper, stubbornness and intense focus also helped to overcome a common philosophy of Japanese management used to cause gradual cultural change in a corporation or society through patience and compromise. That philosophy is called nemawashi, a word that refers to digging carefully around a tree over a long period, severing only a few roots at a time, to prepare it for the shock of transplanting. In business, nemawashi involves patient negotiation until divergent points of view within a company are modified by argument or compromise into a position that all can support. Sogo would have none of it. He considered the economic benefits of the bullet train too urgent for patience and too important for compromise into something more traditionally designed.

Although his tactics brought the project he espoused to reality, they did little to endear him to others in positions of political power. Just as Sogo was brought out of retirement in 1955 to lead the bullet train project, his left unceremoniously shortly after the inauguration of the Shinkansen Tokaido route. But by the time he died in 1981 at the age of 97, he watched Japan add three more high-speed rail lines – the Sanyo, Tohoku and Joetsu Shinkansens – and all were extended since. Two more Shinkansen lines have opened since his passing and two others were created by upgrading older rail lines. Sogo’s vision ultimately was copied by Italy, France and Germany in his lifetime and by many other countries after his death. In each country, immense battles of politics, culture, finance and public relations were waged.

And even though America has yet to build any all-new bullet train routes, Old Man Thunder’s legacy includes inspiring Congress to pass the High-Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965. It was the first attempt by the American government to reverse years of decay in the passenger train industry. It directly lead to Congress funding the Northeast Corridor Improvement Project that led to the development of 125 mph Metroliners and then 135-150 mph Acela Express trains, as well as the designation of “emerging corridors” for future high-speed trains throughout the nation.

The lesson of Old Man Thunder as told by Hosokawa’s book is that the difficulties associated with starting a high-speed rail project are common among nations. But when a convincing vision of the project is developed, a competent management team is assembled to oversee the project, and a forceful leader is installed, success can be achieved. Sogo understood that an imposing battle awaited him yet believed in the cause so well that, when he was brought out of retirement to modernize Japanese National Railways, he said “I am ready to die on the tracks.”

Ken Prendergast is Executive Director of All Aboard Ohio.

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