OSAKA – By the middle of the century, if all goes according to plan, a maglev shinkansen will be in operation between Tokyo and Osaka, reducing a 100-minute trip to just over an hour.
As with the current bullet train lines, stations will be built in cities along the way.
But where the train will stop between Nagoya and Osaka has become the subject of a growing struggle between the cities of Kyoto and Nara, both of which see a maglev station as a critical way to boost tourism revenue, not to mention a matter of prestige.
Officially, Nara has the upper hand. Plans to route the new maglev line through the city date as far back as 1973, when the government officially declared it would build a station “in the vicinity.”
Last year, the transport ministry approved construction of the project, through northern Nara Prefecture and onto its terminus in Osaka, with stations to be built in the Nagoya and Nara areas along the way. The first section of the stretch between Tokyo and Nagoya is scheduled to open in 2027, with the full Tokyo-Osaka line to commence operations in 2045.
But earlier this year, municipal politicians and businesses in Kyoto began pushing the central government and Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai) to change the route.
In February, Kyoto municipal and prefectural authorities presented the central government with a plan for the maglev line to stop at JR Kyoto Station.
In their proposal, the officials noted that the city drew a little more than 50 million tourists in 2008, including 940,000 foreign visitors, compared with the city of Nara’s roughly 14 million tourists and 50,000 overseas guests. Kyoto also hosted 171 conventions on average between 2007 and 2009, as opposed to Nara’s 24, they pointed out.
Kyoto officials added that an estimated 3.88 million passengers passed through JR Kyoto on business in 2005, compared with just 950,000 business travelers at JR Nara Station.
They further stressed that Kyoto has three main train lines to the Tokai region, including a shinkansen route, whereas Nara has just a single JR line that only serves the Kansai region. Both cities are served by the Kintetsu Line, but Kyoto also has a citywide subway system.
Kyoto’s appeal to the central government was based on both practical and cultural considerations.
While Kyoto Mayor Daisaku Kadokawa told local media he was concerned Kyoto’s national and international reputation as a repository of traditional culture could be undermined if the maglev were to bypass the city, the Kyoto Prefectural Government voiced more direct concerns.
The central government is aiming to attract 30 million tourists annually to Japan, and this includes promotions to attract foreign tourists, prefectural officials said in a statement. “In the midst of trying to become a major tourist destination, failing to route the maglev shinkansen through JR Kyoto would be a major blow to meeting this goal.”
Two weeks later, however, JR Tokai stressed that plans for the route were proceeding on the original idea of running it through the vicinity of Nara, claiming it was impossible for the new line to pass close to both the cities of Nara and Kyoto.
That statement didn’t deter Kyoto Gov. Keiji Yamada, who continued to press Kyoto’s case.
“JR Tokai’s comment is natural. But no recent survey has been done on the most appropriate route for the new maglev shinkansen. Nearly four decades have passed since the idea was first floated, and much has changed,” Yamada said. “So to not go back and rethink the route is odd.”
Although the transport ministry and JR Tokai are still refusing to budge, Kyoto may have the upper hand — at least in terms of local politics.
According to one central government estimate, running the maglev through Kyoto would cost more than building it somewhere in the vicinity of Nara. But the annual economic benefits of building it in Kyoto are estimated at around ¥69 billion, higher than projected revenues from a Nara-area station.
Yamada wants the matter to be taken up by the Union of Kansai Governments, a body of local governors and mayors covering seven prefectures and two major cities that aims to coordinate regional strategy.
The organization will likely discuss the issue, and Yamada could well garner its support for rerouting the station through Kyoto, as Nara Prefecture decided against joining the union.
Nara Gov. Shogo Arai, meanwhile, has said he wouldn’t expect the Kansai union to listen to his opinion on the matter even if he approached the group.
But as a former high-ranking transport ministry official, Arai feels confident the plan to route the maglev through Nara is far enough along, and has the backing of enough bureaucrats in Tokyo, to withstand any challenge from Kyoto.
“The maglev shinkansen project is a national project, and it should remain so,” Arai said in March.