Tuesday, September 24, 2013
EDITORIAL: Maglev Train Raises Hopes, Poses Challenges
TOKYO (Nikkei)--With Japan's most ambitious train project since the original Shinkansen line set to get under way next year, expectations of a powerful boost to the nation's economy are growing.
- Central Japan Railway plans to launch the magnetically levitated train service between Tokyo and Nagoya in 2027 and has revealed some details of the project, such as route and station locations.
Central Japan Railway Co. (9022) plans to launch the super-fast magnetically levitated train service between Tokyo and Nagoya in 2027 and has already revealed some details of the project, such as route and station locations. The company, known as JR Tokai, hopes to receive permission from the government to start construction during the next fiscal year, which begins in April.
The maglev train line will run in an almost straight line through tunnels in the mountains between Tokyo and the central Japanese hub of Nagoya, giving Japan another major transport artery. It is designed to usher in a new era of public transportation and represents the country's biggest construction project in decades.
There has been a lot of talk about the project's economic benefits. When it is completed, the maglev line, known in Japan as the Linear Chuo Shinkansen, will shorten the travel time between Tokyo and Nagoya to 40 minutes, down from the current minimum of 100 minutes.
The next-generation train service could link the Chukyo central Japanese industrial and commercial region around Nagoya with the Tokyo metropolitan area to create a vast new regional economic bloc.
In the future, the maglev line will be extended further westward to Osaka to offer a one-hour trip between the nation's capital and the biggest business center in western Japan.
Increased travel on the Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka route, the transportation backbone of the nation, will undoubtedly help re-energize the whole economy, which has long been mired in deflation.
The new service will also help to make Japan's transportation system less vulnerable to major earthquakes and tsunami. The maglev train will be operated along with the existing Tokaido Shinkansen line, which means there will be a backup system if one of the two key train lines is disrupted by a major disaster.
The launch of the world's longest maglev train service could also promote exports of Japanese maglev technology.
Challenges, Uncertainty Ahead
But the project will face a slew of tough technological challenges.
Tunnels will make up 86% of the entire Tokyo-Nagoya route. In particular, boring a long tunnel through the Akaishi Mountains, known as the Southern Alps, will sorely test Japan's engineering ability.
Sections of the line located in central Tokyo will run 40 meters or deeper underground. This approach has the advantage of cutting construction costs and time by removing the need to buy expensive land in the crowded metropolis. But it also creates many engineering difficulties that must be overcome.
The project's commercial viability will also be a serious issue, as JR Tokai is carrying out the 9-trillion-yen project on its own, with no financial support from the government.
The company will face the challenge of securing profitable operations of both the maglev line and the Tokaido Shinkansen line when the nation's population keeps shrinking. It is unclear whether there will be enough demand for passenger transportation to make both train services commercially viable.
JR Tokai will also have to win the support of local residents to ensure that construction costs and time are kept within the estimates.
With the project once regarded as a pipe dream inching closer to realization, the business community has started chiming in with requests.
Some business leaders have called on the train operator to complete the Tokyo-Nagoya maglev line in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, while others are lobbying for a route between Nagoya and Osaka that runs through Kyoto instead of Nara.
Needless to say, however, the final decision on these and other key issues rest with JR Tokai, which is taking a huge investment risk with this mammoth project.
(The Nikkei, Sept. 21 edition)