TRANSPORTATION: The Bullet Is Broke, Too

In the minds of downtrodden U.S. commuters and rail travelers, the very mention of Japan conjures up visions of superfast trains and a superefficient railroad system. To a degree, the image is justified. The futuristic Shinkansen, or "bullet" trains, whisk passengers as far as 735 miles from Tokyo to Fukuoka City in the southernmost main island of Kyushu in six hours flat amid plush comfort. That trip costs only $31.15 for a one-way economy-class ticket with a $20.70 surcharge for first-class.

Yet behind this façade of luxury and speed lurks a grim reality. Like...