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Sunday, July 26, 2009
Japan's maglev on track for financial crash
About 40 people are crowded onto the observation deck of the Yamanashi Linear Test Line Center, holding their cameras at the ready and waiting for the world's fastest train — an experimental maglev model that's called a "linear motor car" (LMC) — to make its appearance.
On certain days, JR Tokai, which is in charge of the project, performs test runs at scheduled times, but the visitors have already been waiting a half hour for the 11:20 a.m. test. Finally, there's an announcement that the train, which can reach speeds of up to 580 kph, will pass by in a minute. Everybody points their lenses at the tunnel on the right. The train zips by in the blink of an eye, and most of the photographers end up with images of an empty track.
With its dioramas and full-scale recreations of LMC interiors, not to mention the souvenir shop selling linear motor manju (sweet buns) on the first floor, the test center doubles as a tourist attraction. It's located in a remote corner of Yamanashi Prefecture, wedged between rice fields and mountains. Though the exhibits sell the virtues of public transportation, the center itself is a 25-minute walk from the nearest train station along back roads with no signs. Most visitors drive there. The parking lot is big enough for tour buses.
Sightseeing is not the center's main purpose, but people can be forgiven for thinking that the LMC has a better chance of becoming an amusement park ride than a viable addition to Japan's railway infrastructure. Maglev trains have been in development here since 1962, and the latest estimate is that there will be a line in operation by 2025. Nobody is holding their breath.
However, JR Tokai is now indicating that it is taking concrete steps in that direction. The company announced at a June 8 Tokyo conference that it would bear all of the estimated ¥5.1 trillion for constructing the Tokyo-Nagoya leg of the system. Consequently, the media, not to mention the government, is finally taking the LMC seriously. The Construction Ministry never paid much attention to the project because it was busy expanding the existing network of shinkansen lines. And except for politicians who happen to live in regions affected by the proposed route, no one ever talked about it, but the business weekly Toyo Keizai reports that some high-profile lawmakers were at the conference hoping to bask in the glow of a bright, shiny future.
Toyo says that no private company in the world has ever single-handedly taken on such a huge infrastructure project. The shinkansen has always been overseen by the central government, and with the Construction Ministry out of the LMC equation for the time being, JR Tokai has to deal directly with local governments. JR Tokai's preferred route is a relatively straight line from Tokyo's Shinagawa Station to Nagoya Station, with one stop in each prefecture the LMC passes through along the way. However, Nagano Prefecture isn't happy with the proposed station in the city of Iida. It prefers a stop in the Suwa region, which contains a lot of precision manufacturers. That would require looping the route northward, and though it would only add about seven minutes to the 40-minute Tokyo-Nagoya journey, it would also add another half trillion yen to the cost.
JR Tokai doesn't want to go to Suwa, but there are also other issues to be worked out, such as who will pay for station construction, JR or local governments. Negotiations will have to be concluded quickly if the route is to be completed by 2025, since the environmental assessment will take three years and construction at least 10.
All this talk about who pays for what and whether the route goes through Suwa has effectively obscured the most significant question: Is there a demand for such a line?
Last December, the Asahi Shimbun ran an editorial by Reijiro Hashiyama, a professor of public policy at Meisei University in Tokyo, who says that not enough thought has been given to the LMC's practicality. JR Tokai has said that "there is a demand" for the LMC because present shinkansen technology will soon "reach its limit" as a means of transportation. Now you can get from Tokyo to Nagoya via the Tokaido shinkansen in as little as an hour and 40 minutes. The LMC promises to cut that time by more than half. In other words, the technology to go faster is available, therefore we should exploit it.
But Hashiyama points out that research has shown a slowing of demand for even present transportation systems, and as everybody knows, Japan's population is on the decline. JR Tokai presumes that half of Tokaido shinkansen users will switch to the LMC, but it doesn't provide any data to support this projection. It has not surveyed users at all.
Maybe that's because the only people who can effectively use the LMC are those in Tokyo or Nagoya. Stations along the route will not have transfer access to other train lines; as with the test center, people will have to drive to get to them. And 80 percent of JR Tokai's planned route is made up of tunnels, thus discouraging pleasure trips. It's like riding a very fast subway.
Hashiyama is almost certain that, based on this "subway" model, the cost will far exceed JR Tokai's estimate , meaning the Construction Ministry will have to step in after all, and costs will then be passed on to taxpayers. As of last December, JR Tokai estimated construction would cost ¥18 billion per kilometer, but subways normally cost from ¥20 to ¥70 billion per kilometer to build. And so far, no one has dared to come up with a possible price for a ticket.
So besides business users who need to get from Tokyo to Nagoya or vice versa really fast, the only people likely to ride the LMC are those, like the train freaks taking photos at the test center, who will want to experience its excitement at least once. They'll probably have to pay dearly for the privilege, but that's OK. They have 15 years to save up.