China and Japan race to dominate future of high-speed rail
- Asia’s two biggest economies are vying to develop the world’s first long-distance maglev railway before the year 2040
- Whoever wins could get a huge leg-up on exporting the lucrative next-generation technology, say experts
On one side is a 9 trillion yen (US$86 billion) maglev from Central Japan Railway Company’s (JR Central) that is expected to connect Tokyo and Osaka by 2037. On the other is China’s 100 billion yuan (US$15 billion) on-again, off-again project that will run between Shanghai and the eastern port city of Ningbo. After several false starts, it is now forecast to be completed by around 2035. Japan’s project is more expensive largely because of the amount of excavation that will be required to tunnel through the mountainous countryside.
“Maglev technology has huge export potential, and China and Japan’s domestic projects are like shop windows into how the technology could be successfully implemented abroad,” said Christopher Hood, a professor at Cardiff University who has studied and written a book about Japan’s shinkansen.
Japan is a “strong rival” in developing regular bullet and high-speed maglev trains, according to an article that appeared in July in state-backed media that quoted a professor who specialises in railways. This “tough reality” has pushed China to make quick breakthroughs in developing maglev trains “to ensure the country has adequate market share in both future domestic and global markets”, the report said.
The maglev line that will connect financial hub Shanghai and Ningbo, via Hangzhou, is part of a plan by China’s Zhejiang provincial government to inject 3 trillion yuan into building out the province’s rail lines.
“There’s the sense that in the technological world, Japan is falling further and further behind China, so if it can realise this new technology first, it would be an issue of immense national pride,” Hood said. He points to China’s recent development of a high-speed train prototype that can run on different track gauges, something Japan has been trying to master with varying degrees of success for several years.
In 2016, the Abe government approved a 3 trillion yen loan to help JR Central fund the so-called Chuo Shinkansen maglev line, resulting in the project’s end-date being moved up to 2037 from 2045. Still, the development faces a number of challenges that may cause it to be delayed, including opposition from a prefectural government concerned about the line’s environmental impact.
“We are making every effort to get the Chuo Shinkansen up and running as soon as possible,” said Yuri Akahoshi, a spokeswoman for JR Central, adding that the line is an “indispensable piece of infrastructure for the future of Japan.”
JR Central runs tests on a 43-kilometre line in Yamanashi prefecture southwest of Tokyo, where its trains have routinely clocked operating speeds of over 500 km/h.
The Japanese government has pledged several billion dollars in financial backing for the US east coast project and JR Central has said it does not plan to charge licensing fees for the technology. Authorities are “fully supporting” the project because of its “importance for the overseas expansion of Japan’s railway systems,” JR Central’s Akahoshi said.
Still, some analysts question whether maglev technology is a viable export without strong government support. Construction costs associated with maglev trains can run to double or triple that of regular high-speed rail lines because of the types of power and substations required, according to Bloomberg Intelligence Asia infrastructure analyst Denise Wong.
“What’s important is which project will be better able to justify the cost,” Wong said, referring to the intercity maglevs planned by China and Japan. That is more crucial than “who gets there first”, she said.