In the last 10 days I’ve travelled 2,200 miles by train, mainly on the bullet train (shinkansen) in Japan, but also on the Virgin Train West Coast line. The bullet train is of course the envy of the world, whereas poor old Virgin took on the mantle of British Rail and has been the butt of many a joke ever since.
But which is better to ride on? The first thing which hits you about the bullet train is that for us, it’s very expensive, about double the cost of an inter-city train. For that you get pretty basic facilities- no tables, no wi-fi, no buffet car (although there is a trolley selling coffee and basic snacks, which comes by every half hour). The one thing you are certain of is a speedy journey and a train which will arrive on time, to the second. How does this compare to the Virgin service from the Lake District to London. The answer depends on which end of the train you travel on. “Standard class” can be pretty hellish when the train is busy, which is most of the time. On the other hand, First Class beats the bullet train hands down. It’s also a lot cheaper, provided that you buy your tickets in advance. In First, you get very comfortable seats with lots of room, a table, a plug for your laptop, free wi-fi and free tea, coffee, alcoholic drinks and good quality snacks. There’s also a buffet car. Since the line was upgraded the journey from the Lake District to London is only 2 and a 1/2 hours and is always on time.
What of the legendary time-keeping of the bullet rain, having in mind that a train was derailed last year, killing 67 passengers because the driver was trying to make good a delay of 27 seconds?
The answer is that bullet trains are at the mercy of the elements like everyone else. On this trip we were delayed twice (by a typhoon and after hitting a deer) and another train was cancelled. I love the shinkansen, but give me Virgin any time.
The photos shows cleaners waiting to board a shinkansen.