Maglev line gets a green light

The government’s go-ahead last week finally sets in motion the ¥9 trillion project to build an ultrahigh-speed magnetic levitation railway line linking Tokyo and Osaka, more than 40 years after the state’s basic plan was adopted in 1973. Still, there does not appear to be any of the kind of excitement with which the nation greeted the debut of the shinkansen bullet train system 50 years ago. Questions continue to be raised about profitability of the project by Central Japan Railway Co., while concerns linger over environmental impact and technical challenges in the construction of the maglev line that — when completed three decades later — would eventually link Tokyo and Osaka in 67 minutes.

The approval given by the transport minister covers the first-phase section between Tokyo and Nagoya, and JR Tokai, as the railway operator is popularly known, will pay for all of the estimated construction cost of ¥5.523 trillion. The maglev line, based on the homegrown technology using superconducting electromagnets to float the train, is expected to shorten the time for the 286 km trip from its terminal in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Station to Nagoya to 40 minutes when operation of the section begins in 2027. JR Tokai plans to extend the line to Osaka in 2045.

Research into the maglev technology by the then state-run Japanese National Railways began two years before the Tokaido Shinkansen line was opened in 1964. The system that has been tested in Yamanashi since the late 1990s is scheduled to drive the maglev train at a maximum speed of 505 kph in commercial operations.

But unlike the days when the project was first conceived, rapid public transportation has become the norm in today’s Japan. The shinkansen network, including the lines under construction, stretches more than 3,000 km throughout Japan. The fastest service on the Tokaido Shinkansen already links Shinagawa with Nagoya in 88 minutes and with Osaka in 138 minutes. In addition, regular flights service nearly 90 airports around the country. Questions linger on why a new, even faster train service is needed when future domestic travel demand is in doubt with the accelerating downtrend of the nation’s population.

Promoters of the maglev project cites the economic benefit of effectively bringing the nation’s three biggest metropolis of Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka into one megalopolis by linking them in roughly an hour. A think tank estimate forecasts the benefits to reach ¥10.7 trillion over five decades. There are also hopes that nation will be able to export its indigenous maglev technology and system.

JR Tokai also says the maglev line — to be officially called the Linear Chuo Shinkansen Line and runs through Kanagawa, Yamanashi, Nagano and Gifu prefectures — is meant to serve as a backup for the Tokaido Shinkansen Line, which accounts for 85 percent of the firm’s revenue, when it’s paralyzed by major disasters like earthquakes and tsunami as well as when it undergoes a long-planned major overhaul.

While there are expectations that the maglev line will revitalize some regional economies by substantially improving their access to Tokyo, concern also lingers that the better access could exacerbate the concentration of people, money and resources to Tokyo — which the Abe administration has vowed to halt in its newly launched drive to boost the nation’s rural economies.

The government and JR Tokai need to address environmental concerns over construction of the Tokyo-Nagoya section, 86 percent of which will run underground. The massive tunnel construction in the mostly mountainous route will produce massive amount of soil and dirt, disposal of all of which has not yet been determined, and concerns have been raised over possible impact on underground water flows. In urban sections in Tokyo and Nagoya, the tunnel will be dug more than 40 meters deep underground to eliminate land acquisition costs — another engineering challenge.

Per-seat energy consumption of a Tokaido Shinkansen train is estimated to be about one-eighth that of an aircraft, which shows that shinkansen services are much more environment-friendly than airlines. But the maglev train is said to consume three times more electricity than a shinkansen train, raising the prospect of massive power consumption in its operation.

Concern also lingers over the possibility of a cost-overrun. In August, JR Tokai revised the estimated cost of building the Tokyo-Nagoya section upward by ¥93.5 billion from its previous forecast, citing increasing manpower costs. The population downtrend and anticipated manpower shortages, particularly in the construction sector ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, are expected to push up manpower expenses in coming years, possibly inflating the project’s overall cost and affecting the firm’s financial health.

There are also calls from political and business quarters in the Kansai region for moving forward the second-phase construction of the Nagoya-Osaka section, out of concern that the region’s economy could be left behind if completion of the section is to come 18 years after the maglev line starts operation between Tokyo and Nagoya. Political pressures may build up for the government to shoulder part of the cost of moving up the schedule for extending the line to Osaka.

There are lots of hopes indeed for the maglev train. But there are just as many questions about its future that now must be answered as the government has given the go-ahead for the project.