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NEW FACE OF HIGH-SPEED RAIL

Maglev challenge both technical, financial

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Central Japan Railway Co.’s project to build a magnetically levitated (maglev) train system re-entered the spotlight Sept. 18 when it unveiled the details of a route scheduled to open between Tokyo and Nagoya by 2027.

The announcement by JR Tokai, as the private railway is known, has revived a number of long-standing doubts about the massive high-tech project, including its profitability.

Will it succeed financially? Here are some questions and answers about JR Tokai’s Linear Chuo Shinkansen project.

What is a maglev train?

A maglev is a train system that uses extremely powerful magnets to float a swiftly moving train above its tracks, eliminating metal friction.

JR Tokai plans to use superconducting electromagnets to propel the cars, which are designed to move at a maximum speed of 505 kph.

What is the outline of JR Tokai’s plan?

JR Tokai, which operates the Tokaido Shinkansen Line, plans to start the Tokyo-Nagoya section of the maglev line in 2027, and the Tokyo-Osaka service in 2045. Termed the Tokaido Shinkansen Bypass, it will more than halve the current shinkansen time between Tokyo and Nagoya to 40 minutes, and between Tokyo and Osaka to 67 minutes, JR Tokai says.

Unlike the previous bullet train projects, JR Tokai, intends to shoulder the entire ¥9 trillion cost of building the maglev line.

A ticket is expected to cost ¥700 more than a current Nozomi superexpress ticket from Tokyo to Nagoya, and ¥1,000 more than the ticket for Tokyo to Osaka.

Where will the maglev run?

The 286-km section between Tokyo and Nagoya will run through Kanagawa, Yamanashi, Nagano and Gifu prefectures.

The four stations on the way will be in: Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture; Kofu, Yamanashi Prefecture; Iida, Nagano Prefecture; and Nakatsugawa, Gifu Prefecture.

Because most of the route is mountainous, 246 km, or 86 percent, of the route will enclosed in tunnels.

The Tokai maglev project has been played up for decades. When did it originate?

Japan National Railway, the predecessor of the JR group, began researching maglev trains as early as 1962. It succeeded in running the first experimental train in 1972.

After the JNR was privatized and split into several regional railways in 1987, JR Tokai built test tracks in Yamanashi Prefecture in 1997. In 2003, an experimental train there set the world speed record of 581 kph.

The technologies for the high-tech train have long been considered ready for actual use, but the transport ministry, which normally participates in funding bullet train construction, wouldn’t authorize it because of the high cost, including for acquiring the land.

In 2007, JR Tokai announced it would build a Tokyo-Osaka maglev line and fund it all by itself.

While the central and local governments usually offer to defray the cost of building bullet train lines, private JR Tokai is no longer waiting for financial support from the government.

Will JR Tokai’s maglev project pay off?

JR Tokai isn’t overly optimistic about that. But the company says it still needs to build the maglev bypass to provide another way to travel between Tokyo and Osaka in case an earthquake or tsunami paralyzes the Tokaido Shinkansen Line, and when it begins a long-planned overhaul.

The Japan National Railways launched the Tokaido shinkansen on Oct. 1, 1964, a few days before the start of the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. Nearly 50 years later, JR Tokai says it needs to carry out a massive overhaul of the line, which runs largely along the Pacific coast.

The plan is to divert travelers to the maglev line, which will run inland, while parts of the older line are under repair, JR Tokai said.

Are the financial risks great?

Many experts say yes. Even JR Tokai admits construction will be difficult, since about 86 percent of the tracks will run through mountains.

In urban areas, meanwhile, the tracks will be built 40 meters below street level, posing a number of engineering challenges for JR Tokai.

This means costs could unexpectedly surge.

Reijiro Hashiyama, visiting professor at Chiba University of Commerce and an expert on public works projects, warned a lot of money could be lost, given the rapidly shrinking population, the hollowing out of the manufacturing industry and intensifying competition with cut-rate airlines.

“You can’t expect growth in demand anymore, and (JR Tokai’s) transportation capacity will be doubled” by the maglev project, Hashimoto told a news conference at Japan National Press Club last October.

“This will be a big (financial) disaster,” he warned.

What is JR Tokai’s financial outlook?

JR Tokai expects overall income to climb as the maglev steals passengers from airlines and automakers and prices for bullet train tickets rise.

The railway estimates income will jump 10 percent after the Tokyo-Nagoya section opens in 2027, and another 15 percent after the Nagoya-Osaka section opens in 2045.

Under this scenario, long-term debt will be less than ¥5 trillion at its peak, JR Tokai claims. It assumes interest rates will hover around 3 percent on average.

If the maglev project proves unprofitable, will the government bail out JR Tokai if requested to do so?

JR Tokai says it will slow the pace of construction should it face “unexpected situations,” such as a surge in construction costs or interest rates.

“We are not thinking about renouncing our responsibility to carry out the project by imposing burdens on the state,” JR Tokai said in a press release.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp

  • TS

    I may be naive, but what about exploring other, more cost-effective high-speed transportation options as opposed to strict maglev technology? I wonder what JR Tokai engineers think of Elon Musk’s Hyperloop idea.

    • William Wilgus

      I imagine they think it’s a Rube Goldberg disaster.

      I can’t help wondering if they’ve allowed for the aerodynamics they’d encounter in the tunnels. he air compression caused by the train’s movement would be horrendous.