NEW YORK – A consortium of Japanese companies is planning to propose Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd.’s bullet train technology for use in a high-speed rail link in California, sources with knowledge about the plan said.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to make a pitch for the technology on an official visit to the United States that begins Sunday, ahead of bidding likely to be held later this year, according to the sources.
The technology is based on Kawasaki’s efSET, short for environmentally-friendly super express train, and is designed to achieve an operational speed of 350 kph.
Eyeing competition from Germany’s Siemens AG and others, Kawasaki says efSET is adapted to stress energy conservation, ride comfort and safety, including fire resistance — qualities often demanded in bids for overseas rail projects.
The Japanese alliance including Kawasaki and East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) is hoping to outbid its Chinese rivals, who are known to offer competitive pricing, believing its train excels in performance on high-speed runs as well as in safety.
The consortium’s bid could become a test case to see whether the government’s infrastructure export initiative will meet expectations as a centerpiece of its strategy for reinvigorating the national economy.
Employing its expertise in shinkansen, Kawasaki started developing the concept design of the efSET in 2008, sporting a sleek aerodynamic head to cut air resistance.
The manufacturer says it incorporates key devices and tools employed by the shinkansen, which has built a reputation for reliability.
Made of aluminum alloy, its lightweight body helps to reduce energy consumption, an environmentally friendly feature that would appeal to eco-conscious California citizens, the sources said.
Kawasaki has built vehicles for the Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen lines as well as the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line, which just opened an extended sector between Nagano and Kanazawa in March. It has also built trains for Taiwan High Speed Rail Corp.
One of the selling points for the Japanese consortium will be the strong safety record of the shinkansen, the sources said. No passengers have died on the bullet train since its launch in 1964 in Japan.
As California is prone to earthquakes, the Japanese consortium is also planning to bid for traffic signals and relevant systems necessary to halt train operations when a quake occurs, the sources said.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority is initially soliciting initially 16 trains, each with a minimum of 450 seats, that can sustain speeds of over 350 kph. The authority is planning to place orders for up to 95 trains.
If the Japanese alliance wins, prototype models would first be manufactured at Kawasaki’s Hyogo factory in Kobe and commercial vehicles would be assembled in the United States, according to the sources.
The California high-speed rail project aims to link San Francisco and Los Angeles, the state’s two major metropolises, in less than 3 hours. It will also serve the high-tech Silicon Valley region, as well as state capital Sacramento.
The Japanese consortium will likely feel tremendous pressure from Chinese manufacturers if they have to compete on the pricing front alone for the California project, which is worth an estimated $68 billion.
Under Beijing’s “railway diplomacy” strategy, Chinese train builders have been increasing their presence in the United States. In October last year, China CNR Corp. won an order for subway vehicles in Boston, outdoing Japanese competitors.
But the record for China’s high-speed rail service was marred by a fatal accident — a 2011 collision in Zhejiang Province that the Chinese government said killed 40 people.
“No one was injured on shinkansen trains when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck in 2011,” an official from a company in the Japanese consortium said.
“We are confident that the Japanese consortium stands to gain if we can compete on quality, technological prowess and safety, not just pricing,” the official said.
On March 11, 2011, the magnitude 9 temblor derailed a bullet train in Tohoku that was on a trial run and was carrying no passengers.
A magnitude 6.8 earthquake in 2004 dislodged a Joetsu Shinkansen Line train with 154 passengers and crew onboard in Niigata Prefecture but no one was injured or killed.
The Japan Railway group companies, which operate a network of shinkansen services in the country, have since been introducing devices to reduce the derailment risk.