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Is the next stop 'brokesville' for the maglev?

by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

Robert Moses, the civil servant who built the great park-expressway-bridge network in New York state during the middle of the last century, succeeded by gaming the system. Understanding how politics would make it difficult for him to fulfill his vision, he often started a public works project clandestinely. By the time it was presented to regulatory scrutiny, it was already partially done, so elected officials had no choice but to approve it.

This underhanded method lent Moses the reputation of a man who got things done, but it also allowed him to sidestep checks and balances, which is why he is blamed for the urban blight and full-time traffic congestion that afflicted the New York metropolitan area after World War II.

World-renowned management consultant Kenichi Omae doesn’t mention Moses in his critique of JR Tokai’s (Central Japan Railway Company) magnetically levitated shinkansen, published in the Aug. 4 online edition of the business magazine President; but when he describes the company’s chairman, Yoshiyuki Kasai, it sounds like Moses’ infamous arrogance. Omae imagines Kasai as saying, “We are paying for this, so the government and the bureaucracy don’t have any say in the matter.” Though the maglev is a massive public works project that will affect all of Japan, JR Tokai doesn’t think it needs central government approval since it isn’t asking for money. The ¥5.43 trillion needed to connect Tokyo and Nagoya will be borne by the company.

But the government is very much involved, as Omae points out, and will end up paying for the maglev in the long run, simply because it’s too big a project and its construction has been accepted as inevitable. That much was obvious two weeks ago when land minister Akihiro Ota met with the chairman of the Kansai Economic Federation, Shosuke Mori, who demanded that the maglev be extended to Osaka. In fact, he wants the Osaka leg to open at the same time as the Tokyo-Nagoya route, which is scheduled to be completed in 2027. JR Tokai does not operate in the Kansai area, which is why Mori talked to Ota, and it’s clear Mori thinks the maglev is a public project, not a private one, meaning taxes will eventually be used to support it. Extending the maglev to Osaka will cost an additional ¥3.5 trillion.

Omae also calls Kasai the “head of the cheerleading team” for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose ruling Liberal Democratic Party is very positive about the maglev, so much so that it is promoting it in the United States. The Japanese government is thus “pimping” the maglev on behalf of JR Tokai, and while it hasn’t paid a single yen toward the train, it has subsidized it nonetheless.

When JR Tokai was going through the laborious process of obtaining land for the maglev, the government waived all real-estate and land-registration taxes. Moreover, Omae thinks the long-term interest rate will increase as the project proceeds, which means the company will not be able to pay its debt on time and will then ask the government to step in. Nobody believes the overall ¥9 trillion budget will stay at that level, and JR Tokai’s proposed fare system for the train will hardly make a difference.

The nonstop journey from Tokyo to Nagoya will take 40 minutes, but the company will only charge ¥700 more than it does for the Nozomi express, currently the fastest train on the Tokai line. That’s because, as Omae explains, the company believes if it charges any more no one will take it. In order to facilitate the purchase of land in Tokyo and Nagoya, platforms will be built 40 meters underground. That means an extra 10 minutes at either end to get to and from the maglev from transfer points, or 50 percent additional time, which reduces the appeal for business travelers. As for tourists, 86 percent of the maglev journey is underground, so the only incentive is novelty.

Omae clearly thinks that, while the technology is compelling, Japan, with its mountainous terrain and seismic activity, is not the ideal place for the maglev, which requires a straight, level trajectory to operate effectively. But his complaint is only interesting in an academic sense, because, in accordance with the Moses doctrine, there’s no stopping the maglev.

In a recent article about the environmental-impact assessment that JR Tokai submitted to the government several months ago, the Asahi Shimbun reported that the Environment Ministry gave Tokai the go-ahead to start construction while admitting that the company needed to be more “honest” with people affected by the work. Kanagawa Prefecture residents have complained that the assessment is vague and doesn’t explain what JR Tokai will do with the 11.4 million cu. meters of earth — enough to fill 9.2 Tokyo Domes — it removes after digging all the tunnels in their prefecture. Even the land ministry has shown concern, since construction will disrupt water supplies and adversely affect rivers. But these worries are simply floating in limbo, because the LDP is backing the project and, since no tax money is involved (yet), it doesn’t need to be discussed in the Diet.

This sense of certainty explains the Asahi’s resigned tone in a June 26 editorial. The paper has serious reservations about the maglev, but the only thing the government can do is “gain the understanding of affected residents,” presumably in order to accept it. In a 40-minute video uploaded to the independent reporting site J-Cast, Japan Communist Party lawmaker Kotaro Tatsumi explains why the maglev is a waste of resources and how JR Tokai ignores public opposition because the media doesn’t cover it.

Even the Asahi’s own survey, conducted last fall, showed only 37 percent public support for the maglev, and with the population dwindling, potential ridership on all shinkansen will drop by a third by the time the Osaka route is completed in 2045. Tatsumi reels off these statistics in a casual, almost sardonic tone, having made his case before uncaring politicians for months now. You can tell he knows it’s useless.