Foreigners still talk about the Japanese ‘bullet trains’ with a certain awe and for sure nobody could accuse the country of not trying hard when it comes to fast trains. Swiss and German trains always run on time, the French TGV is super-comfortable, but only Japanese trains do all that while going faster than everybody else.

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They’ve been at it since the 1960’s Shinkansen, now in its various designs an icon of modernity up there with Concorde and the Space Shuttle, and still the records keep coming.  On Thursday, Japan Railway Company broke its own record by travelling at 590 kilometres per hour (366mph) on the Yamanashi prefecture line.

The train, of course, uses magnetic levitation (maglev) technology, which dates back decades and has been beset by problems, mainly incredible cost. The Japanese train carries no passengers because it’s on a test line. Currently, the only commercial maglev trains runs in China on the short route between Shanghai and Shanghai Pudong Airport.

As with a lot of examples of big tech engineering you have to stick at it – the last record was set by the same Japanese maglev system in 2003 when it reached 581kmh. That’s 12 years to better the last top speed by only 9kmh, about 3mph, although the Japanese are reported to be confident they can reach the symbolic 600kmh speed within days.

In the UK, fast trains are still seen as a vanity project but the fact that most people here are pulled by engines not much faster than the best steam trains says something about the country’s inability to take risks with big, expensive technologies. Britain’s Inter-City 125s that still ply most long-distance routes, and are museum pieces by comparison.

Here’s the embarrassing bit. The train-hating Americans could be about to embrace super-fast trains (I’m discounting the eye-wateringly expensive and not always fast Accela trains that ride between Washington and NYC) in the form of the California High Speed Rail project between Los Angeles and San Francisco. That will have top speeds of 320kmh.

Then there’s Elon Musk’s interesting but unproven Hyperloop idea which would run at somewhere between 950kmh to 1,200kmh along the same Californian route.

For now the Japanese hold the speed mantle. In a world beset by more than engineering challenges it might look like an expensive project for the train obsessives but one day it could turn out to be important all the same.

Image credit: Yosemite (Licensed under Wikimedia Commons)