JAPAN PITCHES ITS MAGLEV TRAIN TO AMERICANS

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

c.2013 New York Times News Service

TSURU, Japan — As the world’s fastest train raced through the mountains of central Japan, former Gov. George E. Pataki of New York hoisted his 6-foot-5 frame into the aisle, lifted his hands from his seat and marveled at the smoothness of the ride.

“In the subway I’d need a strap, at least,” Pataki said as the speedometer hit 314 mph and fleeting glimpses of Mount Fuji appeared through the porthole-like windows. “This is amazing. The future.”

Pataki and a group of other retired American politicians and public figures were in Japan on Saturday for a special test ride of the train, which uses a technology called magnetic levitation, or maglev, to cruise at more than twice the 150 mph top speed of Amtrak’s Acela, the fastest train in the United States. They are trying to bring the technology to the United States, to speed up travel times and ease congestion in the crowded northeast corridor between New York and Washington.

And to sweeten the deal, the Japanese have offered to foot the bill for part of the construction — an amount that could reach billions.

Since Japan opened the first bullet train line in 1964, it has been a pioneer in high-speed rail. Next year, as the bullet train, or Shinkansen, celebrates a half-century in service, Japan plans to begin full-scale construction of its first intercity maglev line, linking Tokyo with Nagoya and, eventually, Osaka.

Now that China has built a nearly 6,000-mile high-speed rail system that surpasses the Shinkansen in scale and rivals it in speed, the maglev line would be a way for Japan to reassert its technological leadership.

So would a prominent showcase overseas. That is where Pataki and the other dignitaries riding the train Saturday, including former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, former Gov. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania and former Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, enter the picture.

Along with former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, who could not make the trip, they are members of the advisory board of the Northeast Maglev, a privately held, Washington-based company that wants to build a line from Washington to New York using the Japanese technology.

Trains would cover the 230-mile distance in one hour, compared with 2 hours and 45 minutes for the Acela. Additional stations would be included at Newark Liberty International Airport; Philadelphia; Philadelphia International Airport; Wilmington, Del.; Baltimore; and Baltimore Washington International Airport.

Promoters of the plan say the faster travel time would increase the productivity of workers in the Northeast, as well as relieve pressure on crowded airports and crumbling highways.

Yet in the American Northeast, maglev trains are only the latest in a series of proposals to upgrade service linking Washington, New York and, in some cases, Boston. Few of these plans have left the station.

At a time when governments are wrestling with growing debts, expensive railway projects are a tough sell. A planned high-speed railway in California faces delays over financing and wrangling over the route. Protesters in Britain are battling their government’s plan to build a high-speed line north from London.

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And when it comes to maglev, a technology that so far has been used only in short test stretches and novelties like a German-built line linking Shanghai Pudong International Airport to Shanghai’s central business district, there may be an element of disbelief.

“Americans think levitation only occurs in horror movies,” Rendell said.

In fact, in the Japanese maglev, levitation occurs at about 90 mph. That is when the wheels, shod with rubber tires like those of a jetliner, lift off the concrete guideway. Unlike conventional high-speed trains, whose steel wheels run on specially designed tracks, the maglev train actually floats 4 inches above the U-shaped guideway, held aloft and propelled forward by superconducting magnets.

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To build the proposed American line, Japan has come up with a method of financing that is similarly novel. In a meeting with President Barack Obama last winter, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered to provide the maglev guideway and propulsion system at no cost for the first portion of the line, linking Washington and Baltimore.

“We are going to share this technology with the United States because the United States is our indispensable ally,” said Yoshiyuki Kasai, chairman of the Central Japan Railway Co., which runs the maglev test track and is building the Tokyo-Osaka line.

Officials have not placed a dollar figure on the value of the aid but say it would cover close to half of the overall cost of construction. Based on the estimated cost of the maglev line from Tokyo to Osaka, which is more than $300 million per mile, that means the Japanese financing could be worth about $5 billion.

The company behind the effort, the Northeast Maglev, wants to raise the rest of the money from private investors and public sources. It was founded in 2010 but only recently began ramping up its lobbying in Washington, with Daschle, now a policy adviser to the law firm DLA Piper, serving as a key figure in those efforts.

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Current investors include Kevin Plank, the founder of Under Armour, a company that makes athletic undergarments. Northeast Maglev’s chief executive is Wayne L. Rogers, an investor in renewable energy and other projects.

Japanese financing would be provided by the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, which normally provides support for Japanese exports, especially in developing countries.

Abe is eager to develop new markets for maglev because Japan has had relatively little success in exporting bullet trains. Taiwan bought Shinkansen technology and China acquired some Shinkansen trains early in the development of its high-speed lines, but other countries, from South Korea to Saudi Arabia, have chosen European systems instead.

“It is truly a dream technology,” Abe said in a speech at the New York Stock Exchange in September.

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But Japan is largely alone in developing it. Support for a maglev system in Germany, called Transrapid, dwindled after a fatal crash on a test track in 2006.

Even in Japan, the planned Tokyo-Osaka maglev line faces considerable skepticism.

One reason is the cost, which is as breathtaking as the speed: nearly $100 billion.

Another is geography. While the Shinkansen that travels the Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka route stays mostly along the coast, through flat, heavily populated areas, the maglev line would run through some of the most mountainous terrain in the country, including the Japanese Alps.

About 86 percent of the route is set to run through tunnels, creating monumental engineering challenges, lifting costs and raising concerns about the effects of seismic activity in one of the most earthquake-prone regions on Earth.

For these and other reasons, the Tokyo-Nagoya portion is not expected to be completed until 2027, with the Nagoya-Osaka stretch to follow only in 2045.

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By that time, the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research expects the population of Japan to decline to about 105 million from the current 127 million, raising questions about who will ride the speedy new train.

“If you seriously take a look at its high cost and low demand, you’ll find it makes no business sense,” said Reijiro Hashiyama, a visiting professor at Chiba University of Commerce who has been arguing against the project for years.

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Central Japan Railway insists that the project will create new demand by decreasing journey times, taking away business from airlines and serving new destinations en route. The company, which was set up when Japan privatized its national rail system in 1987, says it will finance construction through operating cash flow, including the profit generated by its Shinkansen line.

Still, a lot is riding on whether Japan can persuade the United States to build a maglev line in the northeast corridor.

“In the past, the United States led the way in transport technology,” Kasai, the Central Japan Railway chairman, said in an interview at the control center of the maglev test track in Tsuru. “Now the U.S. transportation infrastructure is in bad shape. This time, why don’t the USA and Japan lead the world together?”