Texas high-speed rail firm eyes JR Tokai as partner in shinkansen technology


Texas Central Partners LLC, a U.S. company aiming to build a high-speed rail link in the state, is envisaging Japanese companies potentially providing vehicles and technologies for its planned bullet train service connecting Dallas and Houston.

In a recent phone interview, Texas Central CEO Tim Keith reiterated that the shinkansen technology of Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai), Japan’s lead bullet train operator, will be employed to link the two major cities, which are about 385 km apart.

“Texas Central Partners is 100 percent committed to the shinkansen system with JR Central as our life-of-system partner,” Keith said.

The U.S. company’s assurance is encouraging news for Japan, which has been pushing for exports of high-speed train infrastructure as a centerpiece of the government’s economic growth strategy but recently suffered a setback in the face of competition from China.

The Texas project is contemplating an eight-car bullet train based on the N700 series employed for the top-of-the-line Nozomi services on the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen Line that links Tokyo and Osaka and beyond, according to Keith.

The Dallas-Houston link, with a third station on the way, will be served by one to two trains per hour, running at a maximum speed of approximately 320 kph to shuttle passengers between the two cities in under 90 minutes.

Keith rated Japan’s shinkansen technology highly for its safety record and indicated that he expected Japanese manufacturers to join the Texas project. “A major part of the success for the perfect safety record of the shinkansen system is the fact that it’s a total system, including manufacturers that have been manufacturing and maintaining that system for years in Japan,” he said.

“I think there will be opportunities for many Japanese companies to participate in our project,” he added in regard to rolling stock manufacturing.

The Texas Central CEO projects around 4 million passengers per year by 2026, and they will “have fares that will be competing with business traveler rates on airlines but also low enough to attract people to choose riding on a train over driving in a passenger vehicle.”

The U.S. company is soliciting investments in the $10 billion to $12 billion range for the infrastructure and the system including the rolling stock, controls and signaling devices, without relying on grants from the U.S. government, although it is planning to seek government loans, Keith explained.

Once funding commitment is secured, “we want to be operable in 2021,” he said.

He welcomed the $40 million investment planned by Japan Overseas Infrastructure Investment Corporation for Transport & Urban Development, or JOIN. The funding by the entity owned in part by the Japanese government was authorized by the Japanese transport ministry in November.

“We see a global appetite from investors and lenders to provide capital for a project like this,” he said, suggesting that sovereign wealth funds and insurance companies in Canada, Japan, Australia and Europe would be potential backers for a project like Texas Central.

While JR Tokai has indicated that it will consider taking a minor stake in the U.S. project, Keith said, “we have not engaged in discussion about that,” describing the Japanese railway as “a technology partner” rather than “an equity investor.”

But he mentioned the government-affiliated Japan Bank for International Cooperation as one of the potential lenders it seeks for the project.

For Japan, the Texas project may be an added blessing following a deal in early December to introduce shinkansen technology to India, announced by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his trip to the South Asian country.

Tokyo, however, suffered a blow in September when Indonesia opted for a Chinese bid at the last minute for a rail link, even though Japan had spent considerably more time and effort than China to pitch its proposal.

In the U.S. railway sector, too, China is increasing its presence and posing strong competition.

Just before Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trip to the United States in late September, Beijing announced that a Chinese consortium will be joining a U.S. partner to build a 370 km high-speed rail link between Los Angeles and Las Vegas — a project to which JR Tokai had hoped to deliver technology several years ago.

Japanese railway officials are hoping Texas Central’s commitment to the shinkansen system may help Japanese businesses fight such competition and penetrate the U.S. market.