Japan may have found a silver lining in the March earthquake, seeking to sell bullet trains abroad, as the high-speed train system proved resilient against the powerful 9.0-magnitude temblor of March 11.
Shinkansen have long been synonymous with safety. But experts and government officials say safety alone is not enough to market the trains, saying more is needed, including flexibility that caters to local needs, to compete with European countries and emerging Asian rivals.
When the massive quake struck the northeast, 27 bullet trains, including a model that can hit speeds of 275 kph, were traveling in the Tohoku region.
All that were hauling passengers stopped without a derailment or injuries as a quake detection system triggered emergency brakes on the trains 9 to 12 seconds before the main earthquake struck.
Some officials argue that railways have taken on added importance for the country because the other pillar of its infrastructure exports, atomic power plants, has suffered a severe setback due to the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant crisis.
“The government is ready and willing to work hand in hand with Japanese companies in promoting shinkansen abroad,” said Seiichiro Yoshioka, deputy head of the transport ministry’s Office of Global Strategy for Railways Development.
Figures back up the eagerness shown for railway exports. An October 2010 report by the Association of the European Rail Industry estimated the world’s rail market at €136 billion (¥14.3 trillion) annually. That is more than the estimated €80 billion (¥8.4 trillion) for the comparable aviation market.
The train market is projected to grow between 2 and 2.5 percent annually until 2016, with many countries, principally the United States, but also Brazil, India and Vietnam, planning to build high-speed lines.
Japanese companies, some facing severe shortfalls in domestic public works projects and others having a tough time abroad with consumer electronics and automobiles, are eager to tap the rail market.
In California, a consortium of Japanese companies, including East Japan Railway Co., operator of the Tohoku Shinkansen Line, and led by Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd., a major railcar manufacturer, has registered its interest in the state’s proposed high-speed rail project.
But the group faces tough competition with not only rivals from France and Germany — established players in high-speed rail — but also fledgling entries into the market, including firms from China and South Korea, which boast low costs.
Japan says in promoting its shinkansen that the cars are wider-bodied and lighter than its European rivals — France’s TGV, for example — and require smaller tunnels due to their air tightness, which reduces costs.
But difficulties lie in the different approaches to collision prevention between Japan, and European countries and the U.S., the officials and experts say.
In Japan, shinkansen run exclusively on dedicated tracks, often elevated sections that stretch over many kilometers without crossings. But in Europe and elsewhere, high-speed trains also run on the same tracks used by heavier and slower freight trains, with grade crossings adding to the risk. Japanese companies have also been slow to commit to meeting calls by local hosts for the construction of train manufacturing and maintenance plants that create jobs.
Takeshi Fukayama, a senior consultant and expert in railway development at Mitsubishi Research Institute, urges the government to do more to help in marketing shinkansen.