When U.S. President Barack Obama took office, one thing he pitched was a “Green New Deal” that would reduce fossil fuel use, and high-speed passenger trains like those in Japan and Europe were part of his sweeping plan.
If there is one thing virtually all Americans whose only form of transport at home has been automobiles appreciate when they come to Japan, it’s the bullet trains — a marvel worthy of emulation in the United States.
The U.S. East and West Coasts, the Midwest and Florida have all expressed interest in introducing, or in the case of the East, upgrading, high-speed passenger rail service.
Last month, U.S. and Japanese officials discussed introducing bullet trains in America, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood hopes to visit Japan in a couple of months to take a ride on a shinkansen.
What is being done to introduce shinkansen systems in the U.S.?
Two companies have been formed to introduce current and future bullet-train technology to the U.S. market. The first, U.S.-Japan High Speed Rail, was set up to sell the N700-I trains currently in use in Japan.
The second, U.S.-Japan MAGLEV, is looking to introduce maglev trains like those now being tested in Japan, where they are not expected to go into operation for at least another 15 years.
Both are based in Washington and funded by the U.S. venture capital firm New Magellan Ventures. They are led by prominent former high-ranking government officials who have been deeply involved with U.S.-Japanese defense relations, including Richard Lawless, the president and CEO of U.S.-Japan High Speed Rail.
Lawless served as deputy undersecretary of defense for Asia-Pacific security affairs.
Over the past several months, U.S. and Japanese officials involved in the project have been holding meetings with the aim of concluding a contract before the end of this year.
Where in America would bullet trains debut?
Michael Finnegan, executive vice president of U.S.-Japan MAGLEV, said the N700-I series may be introduced in various regions, including Florida, Los Angeles-Las Vegas, Texas and perhaps the Midwest on a Chicago-St. Louis route.
He said an initial line may link Tampa and Orlando, Fla., with an eventual link with Miami.
Many of the bureaucratic challenges to introducing bullet trains to this region have been, or are nearly, resolved, he said.
When would bullet trains actually start operating in the U.S.?
Assuming Japan wins the contract, Finnegan said it’s within the realm of possibility that the first passengers could board a U.S. bullet train in three or four years. But this assumes a contract is signed by year’s end and federal, state and local government, as well as private, funding is arranged.
The federal government has set aside $8 billion for this year to start the project, and Obama will pressure Congress for billions more in the coming years.
Florida, which appears the most likely place to see the N700-I debut, received $1.25 billion of this amount to actually build the line.
But Japan is not the only country hoping to sell high-speed rail technology to the United States.
European and Canadian companies are angling for contracts and are lobbying the U.S. government. In addition, questions linger over when funding will be available and how much the public sector can cough up.
What adaptations would bullet trains have to undergo to run in the U.S. and would they carry freight?
Aside from dealing with possible differences in track gauge, the U.S. side appears to prefer shorter bullet trains than the 14- to 16-car trains that run between Tokyo and Osaka.
U.S. bullet trains would probably require larger seats.
Both Finnegan and Kenji Hagihara, public relations manager at Central Japan Railway (JR Tokai), which has teamed up with the two American companies, say there are no plans to use bullet trains to haul freight. Freight cars in use in the U.S. have various designs, depending on the commodities they carry, and are not streamlined for the types of speeds reached by bullet trains. The standard U.S. gauge — the distance between rails — differs from that of the shinkansen system as well.
However, bullet-train coaches would be able to haul mail and other packaged items, such as Federal Express parcels, and this could interest shipping companies.
What are the chances of a U.S. debut of the next-generation maglev, which is still being tested and won’t be introduced in Japan for many years?
The maglev’s potential introduction to the U.S. is much further away than the three to four years in which N700-Is could enter service. JR Tokai’s Hagihara said company officials are still explaining the maglev system to the U.S.
Even if the various technical challenges to introduce a maglev system are overcome, the amount of money required to build the civil engineering infrastructure would far exceed the $8 billion in stimulus money the U.S. Federal Railway Administration is allocating for high-speed rail this year.
Will it be hard to get enough Americans to park their coveted cars and travel by high-speed
train so the rail systems can turn a profit?
U.S. and Japanese officials involved in bringing bullet trains to the U.S. are addressing that question in a number of ways.
Hagihara said his company has emphasized to U.S. officials that bullet trains are energy-efficient, environmentally friendly and will help reduce automobile traffic, which is a major problem for trucking companies that use the heavily congested roads. Also, construction of high-speed rail lines would mean many new jobs.
Finnegan emphasized that with the high cost of gasoline, and the hassles of getting on a plane due to increased security measures since 9/11, more people are open to the idea of taking the train.
He added that the airline industry may welcome high-speed rail lines, especially for routes of less than 800 km, because most airlines don’t make money on short-haul flights. A shinkansen system would allow them to concentrate on longer, more profitable flights.
Have consumer safety problems with Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles and bilateral friction, including over the Futenma base relocation, created political concerns among American lawmakers about adopting Japanese technology instead of that of a rival?
Finnegan said most people in Washington realize the shinkansen system represents tried-and-true technology, bullet trains have never been involved in a crash, and introducing them could benefit bilateral cooperation in other ways, including green technologies, an area Obama has demonstrated a strong interest in promoting.