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A plan to operate magnetically levitated — or maglev — trains between Tokyo and Osaka in one hour at speeds of up to 500 kph is moving ahead, with the government starting a feasibility study.

Yoshiyuki Kasai, president of Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai), said, “It is possible for the construction (of the maglev track) to begin four years from now.” The fastest bullet train currently covers the same distance in 21/2 hours.

But industry analysts said the major stumbling block for the plan is the huge construction cost, estimated at 8 trillion yen, with a reduction in the bill through further technological developments essential to make the maglev train profitable.

A committee at the former Construction Ministry approved the maglev technology in March last year, saying the vehicle can be put to practical use as a ultra high-speed mass transportation system.

Based on this, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, the successor to the Construction Ministry, this year began a study on the maglev’s economic effects and demand. It is scheduled to be completed by fiscal 2002.

However, the analysts say electric power units and propelling coils should be further improved to cut costs, and to verify the maglev train’s reliability, test runs should be continued until fiscal 2004. The test runs are presently taking place on an 18.4-km experimental track in Yamanashi Prefecture.

The maglev floats on a magnetic field that eliminates wheel friction at high speeds. An unmanned maglev has sped to a new world record of more than 550 kph. The speed record for conventional trains is held by the French TGV, which hit 515 km per hour in 1990.

In February last year, Germany suspended its plans to operate a maglev service between Berlin and Hamburg from 2005 because of high costs and erroneous passenger demand estimates.

Japan has the same problem. The former Construction Ministry said about 24 million people traveled between Tokyo and Osaka in fiscal 1998, with 70 percent of them using bullet trains, but the analysts also pointed to Japan’s falling population.

If the maglev and bullet trains compete for passengers, JR Tokai’s business environment will naturally worsen, the analysts said.

But Kasai remains upbeat. “The inauguration of the maglev will not only generate a large economic ripple effect but also open up a new prospect for industrial technology and national land development,” he said.

Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji took a ride on an experimental maglev last October. “It was quite good,” he said, adding that he did not feel dizzy as he did during a similar ride on Germany’s maglev.

Zhu rode on the train to study the possibilities of China adopting Japanese technology in the planned construction of a high-speed rail link between Beijing and Shanghai.

At present, China is debating whether to adopt a conventional track system or the maglev for the railway project, which is to begin during China’s 10th five-year development plan that runs until 2005.

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