Maglev floats a fine line between success and failure
On Sept 18, JR Tokai Co announced the planned route for the first phase of the new magnetically levitated trains, to link Shinagawa Station in Tokyo with Nagoya. Should the government grant approval, construction on the high-speed maglev should begin from around summer of 2014.
When completed in 2027, a trip from Tokyo to Nagoya will take just 40 minutes, and by the time the line is extended to Osaka in 2045, that trip will take 67 minutes. In the case of both cities, that’s less than half the time required for the current shinkansen, and puts both within the range of daily commuting times.
But Shukan Jitsuwa (Oct 17) is not so optimistic about the new line’s prospects. For one thing, while it’s been normal in the past for funding of shinkansen construction to be split between the national government, local governments and JR, currently funding has already been allocated to shinkansen expansion in Hokkaido, Hokuriku and Kyushu, making it harder to obtain more funding for the maglev project.
In addition, the magazine names five possible stumbling blocks that put the success of the project at risk. The first is concern over the high electrical power requirements, said to be three times that of the conventional shinkansen trains. Japan currently faces tight power situation due to the shutting down of its nuclear plants, and during peak demand in summer, the linear trains might make it difficult to maintain stable power supplies. Moreover, Yoshiomi Yamada, president of JR Tokai, has made remarks to the effect that he believes the line’s future power supply is predicated on restoration of nuclear power generation.
A second risk is the possibility of an eruption of Mt Fuji. Because it levitates over the tracks, the maglev train carries a low risk of derailment, and in that regard is seen as functioning as a bypass, if necessary, for the regular shinkansen line. But most of the new line will transit tunnels, which will be running through a region where a major earthquake is believed to be imminent.
As roughly 60% of the current Tokaido Shinkansen passengers from Tokyo disembark at Nagoya as opposed to 40% who go all the way to Shin-Osaka, the prospect of the maglev competing with the company’s own existing trains, it is feared, may cut into JR Tokai’s revenues—some 90% of which comes from shinkansen operations. The planned one-way Tokyo-Nagoya fare on the maglev route will only be 700 yen higher than the currently running line, so there’s the likelihood that passengers will opt to pay extra, leaving the existing trains to operate at a deficit.
Another factor that threatens the project is that high costs of construction might cause a shortfall of capital. The maglev project costs are estimated to reach 5.43 trillion yen up to Nagoya and 9 trillion yen to Shin-Osaka. But the project coincides with Tohoku restoration work in progress and the buildup for the 2020 Olympics, and one financial analyst expressed fears that building costs might overrun estimates by a factor of two.
The fifth risk—a real wild card—is interference by politicians. JR Tokai has agreed to shoulder the full costs of station construction, estimated at 325 billion yen. At one point local communities were dead set against providing funds for the new trains. But now that the project has been decided, cities in Shiga and Kyoto prefectures that were to be bypassed by the maglev train have begun to put pressure on their Diet representatives to demand that the routes be altered so that their communities can also be served by the new train.
In addition, pressure is also being applied on planners to have the trains up and running to show off to the world at the time of the 2020 Olympics, even if they only make it as far as Kofu City in Yamanashi Prefecture. There are also calls to extend the new line’s terminus from Shinagawa to Tokyo Station to facilitate changes to the Tohoku and Hokuriku Shinkansen Lines that depart from that station.
One think tank has estimated the projected economic benefits of the new trains as 10.7 trillion yen from Tokyo-Nagoya and 16.8 trillion yen when the Tokyo-Osaka line is completed. But these figures are only about 5 and 8 trillion yen above estimated construction costs, and should those costs rise, any anticipated gains will be eaten up before the first ticket is sold.
That’s the nature of these massive works projects—until they’re built, you can’t be sure they’ll realize your fondest dreams or turn out to be a nightmare.