The outline of Central Japan Railway Co.’s magnetically levitated train project represents a major step in the long-term project, colloquially dubbed the Linear Chuo Shinkansen.
The train, scheduled to enter service in 2027, will whiz by at speeds of up to 500 kph, completing the 286-km trip from Tokyo to Nagoya in just 40 minutes — less than half the time needed by non-floating bullet trains.
While the futuristic project will put another technological feather in Japan’s cap, however, the company is also looking abroad, notably to the United States, to market its technology, a company official said.
Yoshiyuki Kasai, chairman of the railway better known as JR Tokai, has told group officials that he plans to “sell our unique 500-kph technology to the world.”
Already years in development, the maglev project has primarily served an “experiment to gain know-how in construction and management,” he said.
JR Tokai’s export ambitions, like many of the nation’s other struggling manufacturers, originated from necessity: Companies are being forced to diversify their income amid a shrinking domestic market, a rapidly aging population and declining birthrate.
Overseas demand for high-speed rail links is meanwhile projected to expand. Foremost in Kasai’s mind appears to be the U.S., which he has repeatedly mentioned as a potential export market. But meddling from politicians, lobbyists and Japan’s famed bureaucracy may prevent JR Tokai from even getting the maglev off the ground, let alone into the U.S.
Business and political figures, for instance, are already pressuring the railway to get the project done in time for the 2020 Summer Tokyo Olympics.
Under JR Tokai’s plan, the maglev would start runs between Shinagawa, the termination point for Tokyo, and Nagoya, capital of the Chubu region, in 2027. The second phase would see it extended to Osaka.
Hiromasa Yonekura, chairman of the business lobby Keidanren (Japan Business Federation), said at a Sept. 9 news conference he would like to “take a ride on the linear service,” just two days after Japan was picked to host the 2020 games, recalling that the bullet train system was launched when Japan last hosted the Summer Olympics in 1964.
“It doesn’t have to be between Tokyo and Osaka but I wish we could ride it at least to Nagoya,” Yonekura, 76, said in an apparent allusion to the Tokaido Shinkansen Line.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga chimed in on Wednesday, stating that with people flocking to Japan for the Olympics, “it would be desirable if they can ride even on a part of the Linear line.”
But JR Tokai President Yoshiomi Yamada has made it clear that there is no way to finish the maglev project by 2020.
He was backed by Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Akihiro Ota, who said Tuesday that “construction is time-consuming” and that “as a practical matter, (opening by the Olympics) would be difficult.”
The train’s course takes it through the Southern Alps, and boring a tunnel through the mountains is expected to take more than 10 years.
Some politicians have called on the government to offer financial support to the maglev as a way to get their fingers into the private railway project.
A senior transport official, however, said that the project is not structured to be funded by taxpayer money and that there is no leeway in state coffers for the project. “It doesn’t make sense to spend state funds when JR Tokai doesn’t have any desire for them,” the government official said.
JR Tokai plans to bear the estimated ¥9 trillion cost of the massive project, mostly to keep it on time and to keep government meddling at bay.
“If you count on the state’s coffers, you will never know when we can start running the service,” a JR Tokai official said. “If they offer money, they would also feel entitled to have a say (in the project). That won’t move us forward.”
JR Tokai is one of the regional railways born out of the 1987 breakup and privatization of the Japanese National Railways. JR officials still have bitter memories of the JNR, when the tight grip of the government and the ruling party left them little decision-making room of their own.
JR Tokai President Yamada said he is determined to “hold onto the principle of private enterprise, which is freedom of management.”
To guard that freedom, JR Tokai may also have to fend off pressure from another front in the future — lobbyists calling for a route change when the maglev ventures beyond Nagoya to Osaka via Nara, in 2045.
Businesses and politicians in Kyoto are already calling on JR Tokai to change the route to accommodate Kyoto instead of Nara, just like the existing Tokaido Shinkansen Line does.
The maglev line was intended to provide a second high-speed link for the three key metropolises — Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka — in case the existing shinkansen becomes obsolete or is damaged by an earthquake.
For this reason, building a maglev station in Kyoto would defeat its purpose by running both lines through the same area.
People in the Kansai business community are hoping the route will be extended to Osaka sooner than planned. But they also know that JR Tokai is unlikely to entertain such a request, since the massive cost of the project is already comparable to a government-funded infrastructure project.
The maglev project was received well by the stock market Wednesday, as JR Tokai’s stock rose nearly 1 percent to ¥12,270. But Osuke Itazaki, senior analyst at SMBC Nikko Securities Inc., expressed caution. “There are many uncertain elements, such as when the firm will be able to recover the cost of construction and what shape the Japanese economy may be in when the service starts,” Itazaki said, adding that there is no guarantee that passenger volume will rise at a time when the population is shrinking.