Japan bites bullet with maglev trains

The spiralling costs of a high-speed rail link not intially planned to use state cash has seen the government step in to provide finance. Some analysts question the wisdom of the project.

A 2013 ribbon-cutting event to mark the test run of a maglev train in Tsuru City. The maglev transport method uses magnetic levitation to move vehicles without making contact with the ground. Yuriko Nakao / Bloomberg
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TOKYO // A record-breaking high-speed train is under construction between Tokyo and Nagoya City, a distance of 286 kilometres, with a planned extension to Osaka, another 139km.

Called Chuo Shinkansen and under construction since 2014, the bullet-train line is expected to connect Tokyo and Nagoya with a journey time of 40 minutes compared to an hour on the existing high-speed line the Tokaido Shinkansen, and eventually Tokyo and Osaka in 67 minutes rather than 145 minutes, running at a maximum speed of 500kph.

The Chuo Shinkansen is the culmination of Japanese maglev (magnetic levitation) technology development which has been ongoing since the 1970s. The first programme was a state-funded project initiated by Japan Airlines and the former Japanese National Railways. Central Japan Railway Company (JR Tokai) now operates the research facilities.

Maglev is a transport method that uses magnetic levitation to move vehicles without making contact with the ground. With maglev, a vehicle travels along a guideway using magnets to create both lift and propulsion, thereby reducing friction by a great extent and allowing very high speeds. The trainsets themselves are popularly known in Japan as “linear motor cars”.

In China, the Shanghai Maglev Train, or Shanghai Transrapid, was the third commercially operated high-speed magnetic levitation line in the world and is currently the fastest. The first maglev in commercial operation was a low-speed shuttle that ran between the airport terminal of Birmingham International Airport and the nearby Birmingham International railway station between 1984 and 1995.

While the Shanghai Transrapid holds the speed title, the Chuo Shinkansen’s backers say the latter train has significant advantages. Whereas the Shanghai Transrapid is a normal conducting maglev, with a maximum speed of 430kph, the Chuo Shinkansen, as a superconducting maglev, can run faster, says Tomoya Ishino, the trunk railway division chief at the railway bureau of Japan’s ministry of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism (MLIT).

In addition, “the Chuo Shinkansen can levitate at 10cm compared to the Shanghai maglev’s 1cm, so it is safer in case of earthquakes or other disasters”, Mr Ishino says, as the carriages have more clearance.

The line’s route passes through many sparsely populated areas in the Japanese Alps but is more direct than the current Tokaido Shinkansen route, and time saved through a more direct route was a more important consideration for JR Tokai than having stations at intermediate population centres.

Also, the more heavily populated existing Tokaido route is congested, and providing an alternative route if the Tokaido Shinkansen were to become blocked, following an earthquake for instance, was also a consideration.

JR Tokai announced in December 2007 that it planned to raise funds for the construction of the Chuo Shinkansen on its own, without government financing, to avoid government control. However, that was when total construction cost was estimated at ¥5.1 trillion (Dh160.16 billion).

The figure has since ballooned to around ¥9tn including the cost of the trains, MLIT’s Ishino says. With the spiralling cost, the Japan cabinet in September adopted a bill that will allow the government to make unsolicited loans for building the line.

But construction costs will to a large extent depend on issues such as the ease or otherwise with which the tunnels and bridges required can be built, above ground or underground stations and site costs, for example, Mr Ishino says. “Tunnels count for 70 to 80 per cent of the total length of the route with the extension to Osaka included, so difficult construction is anticipated,” he says.

Tunnels are the primary reason for the project’s huge costs. Some 86 per cent of the line from Tokyo to Nagoya is planned to run in a tunnel, with some sections at a depth of 40 metres, over a total of 100km in the Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka areas.

The government hopes the new bill will help to get the Chuo Shinkansen running up to eight years ahead of the previous target of 2045 for completion of the extension to Nagoya.

JR Tokai estimates that Chuo Shinkansen fares will be only slightly higher than Tokaido Shinkansen fares, up by about ¥700 between Tokyo and Nagoya and around ¥1,000 between Tokyo and Osaka. The positive economic impact of the Chuo Shinkansen in reducing travel times between the cities has been estimated at anywhere between ¥5tn and ¥17tn during the line’s first 50 years of operation , according to analysts quoted by the economic daily Nihon Keizai Shimbun.

Nevertheless, the Chuo Shinkansen has its critics. Shinichi Yamazaki, a senior sector analyst at Okasan Securities’ corporate research department, believes that while constructing the line makes economic sense, it faces two major problems: the construction costs; and the length of time it will take to build.

Japan is in a rush for infrastructure construction ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and project costs are rising as the number of people working in the building industry is decreasing, Mr Yamazaki says.

“JR Tokai is planning to open the Shinagawa-Nagoya section of the line in 2027, but it is not clear whether it will follow the plan or not,” he says. For his part, Reijiro Hashiyama, a former visiting professor at Chiba University of Commerce’s graduate school, has opposed the Chuo Shinkansen project for years.

Mr Hashiyama says JR Tokai will not be able to get a return on its investment because of the line’s overly high construction and running costs, lack of passenger demand as the population declines and he adds that he sees the doubling of routes between Tokyo and Osaka as unnecessary. The line will cost ¥22bn to build per kilometre, compared to only ¥5bn for the Shanghai maglev. And as the Chuo Shinkansen levitates 10 times higher, it will require 3.5 times more electric power than the Chinese train, Mr Hashiyama says.

As for the much-vaunted greater safety of Japan’s maglev technology compared to its Shanghai counterpart – two Chinese fast trains collided in 2011 near the city of Wenzhou south-east of Shanghai and dozens of people were killed – that is offset by the fact that the vast majority of the Tokyo to Nagoya line is underground, Mr Hashiyama says. His belief comes despite the fact that Japan has the safest, most punctual high-speed rail system in the world, according to Wharton University of Pennsylvania. “In case of an earthquake, a fire or an accident, we can imagine very high casualties,” Mr Hashiyama says.

For train line profitability, the fundamental requirements are safety, reliability, punctuality, comfort, convenience, comprehensive network, adequate speed, low energy use and affordable fares, Mr Hashiyama says.

Regarding energy use, a maglev is more efficient than a conventional train.

According to the US Centre for Transport Analysis at Oakridge National Laboratory, a standard intercity train running at 130kph uses six barrels of oil per 16,000 passenger kilometres whereas a maglev running at 485kph uses just 0.46 of a barrel.

However, Mr Hashiyama says “the maglev’s biggest advantage is high speed, so in this way it is an airplane. But as a train the regular Shinkansen service is much more satisfactory,” he says.

For the maglev to really take advantage of its uniquely high speed, it needs to be used on services that are direct and frequent, long distance and with many passengers every day, just like a commercial airline, Mr Hashiyama says.

“If this is not the case, the train company will not be able to bear the deficit from construction,” he says.

Mr Ishino says the intrinsic safety of the Japanese maglev technology is a strong selling point for overseas customers, but Mr Hashiyama firmly disagrees. “There is no country interested in maglev technology today,” he says.

However, the Las Vegas-based management consultant group Global Market Advisors’ senior partner Andrew Klebanow believes the United States, for example, would find it more economical to import such technology than to try to develop it itself, although, “this is not to suggest that the US will embrace maglev technology”, he says.

US investment in its motorways and air transport makes it unlikely that the country’s policymakers will adopt a new form of mass transit, Mr Klebanow says.

But “other countries, where ‘mass transit’ is not a political term, could easily embrace these new technologies”, he adds.


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